Yesterday, Andrew Sullivan posted a new Washington Post/ABC News poll tracking changes in approval for legalizing same sex marriage. Sullivan noted that following Obama’s announcement this month that his support of equal rights for same sex couples has “evolved” into support for marriage, there has been a rise in support for legalizing gay marriage among Democrats and Independents. Meanwhile, among Republicans the reverse is true:
“As the country as a whole grows more supportive of gay equality, the GOP is headed in the other direction. Republican support for marriage equality has declined a full ten points just this year - a pretty stunning result. Have they changed their mind simply because Obama supports something? In today's polarized, partisan climate, I wouldn't be surprised.”
I wouldn’t be surprised either. This is how partisans often react to anything coming from the other side: whatever it is, they don’t like it. Partisans will argue that they are opposed to whatever it is the other side is proposing purely on its merits. We all like to believe that when we evaluate a policy we are responding to the policy’s content, but very often we’re far more influenced by who is proposing it.
For example, in a pair of studies published in 2002, Lee Ross and his colleagues asked Israeli participants to evaluate a peace proposal that was an actual proposal submitted by either the Israeli or the Palestinian side. The trick they played was that, for some participants, they showed them the Israeli proposal and told them it was the Palestinian one, or they showed them the Palestinian proposal and told them it came from the Israeli side (the other half of participants saw a correctly attributed proposal). What they found was that the actual content of the plan didn’t matter nearly as much as whose plan they thought it was. In fact, Israeli participants felt more positively toward the Palestinian plan when they thought came from the Israeli side than they did toward the Israeli plan when they thought it came from the Palestinians. Let me repeat that: when the plans’ authorship was switched, Israelis liked the Palestinian proposal better than the Israeli one.
The same is true when it comes to Democrats and Republicans. In a series of studies published by Geoffrey Cohen in 2003 (PDF), he asked liberals and conservatives to evaluate both a generous and a stringent proposed welfare policy. Although liberals tend to prefer a generous welfare policy and conservatives tend to prefer a more stringent one, the actual content of the policy mattered far less than who proposed it. Not only were liberal participants perfectly happy to support a stringent policy when it was proposed by their own party (while the reverse was true for conservative participants), neither side was aware of the influence of the source of the policy proposal. So even though their partisan affiliations were more important than the content of the policy, both liberal and conservative participants claimed that they were basing their evaluations of the welfare policy strictly on its content. New research by Colin Tucker Smith and colleagues, published in the current issue of the journal Social Cognition (4), suggests that the influence of the policy’s source on our evaluation of the policy’s content happens at an automatic level and can happen without our awareness.
So perhaps it should not be terribly surprising that President Obama’s support for marriage equality has led to increased support among Democrats and more opposition from Republicans. Even though none of the facts have changed, an endorsement from a Democratic president is enough to change people’s opinions. This phenomenon could also help us to understand Obama’s reluctance to forcefully insert himself into causes he supports. Presumably, if he did, he would galvanize opposition to whatever it was he supported. Perhaps it really is better, at least in some instances, to lead from behind.