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Public Support for Bipartisanship in Congress: Who Compromises, How Much, and Under What Conditions?

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Principal Investigator(s):

Laurel Harbridge
Northwestern University
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Sample size: 1000
Field period: 11/4/2011-02/27/2012



Public opinion surveys regularly assert that Americans want political leaders to work together and to engage in bipartisan compromise. If so, why has Congress become increasingly acrimonious even though the American public wants it to be “bipartisan”? Many scholars claim that this is simply a breakdown of representation. We offer another explanation: although people profess support for “bipartisanship” in an abstract sense, what they desire procedurally out of their party representatives in Congress is to not compromise with the other side. To test this argument, we conduct two experiments in which we alter aspects of the political context to see how people respond to parties (not) coming together to achieve broadly popular public policy goals. We find that citizens’ proclaimed desire for bipartisanship in actuality reflects self-serving partisan desires. Consequently, members of Congress do not have electoral incentives to reach across to aisle to build costly bipartisan coalitions.


H1: We hypothesize that people are attracted to bipartisanship conceptually because it is associated with compromise and consensus, which have positive valence. However, when they evaluate a specific compromise or a manifestation of bipartisanship, this social identity is activated and people perceive lawmaking as an instance of group conflict, and ultimately favor partisan policy-making.

This broader hypothesis is tested using a number of more specific hypotheses, including the following:

H2: Bipartisan coalitions will not be preferred to coalitions made up of co-partisans.

H3: Respondents will be more supportive of outcomes that reflect “wins” by their party, treating compromises as “losses” equivalent to the other party winning.

H4: A winning outcome will induce partisan bias in people’s view of what comprises a bipartisan outcome.

H5: Being on the winning side may also enhance the partisan divide in preferences.

H6: The perceived bipartisanship of one’s own party leader is less sensitive to the nature of the outcome compared to the perceived bipartisanship of the opposing party’s leader.

H7: Preferences for partisanship in policy-making will be exacerbated by majority control by a voter's party in Congress.

Experimental Manipulations:

Three studies/manipulations around congressional policy making were implemented.

The first manipulation focused on the makeup of the supporting coalition for legislation. We asked respondents to evaluate a piece of legislation that makes it easier for small businesses to obtain loans and randomized both the size of the coalition (50-50 split or supermajority support) and whether the coalition was dominated by Democrats, Republicans or an even number from both parties.

The second manipulation presented respondents with competing proposals from both Congressional Republicans and Democrats to cut NASA spending. We then randomized the outcome of the negotiation between the parties and assessed how respondents reacted to the outcome.

The third manipulation told respondents about some proposed reforms to make higher education more affordable, including the positions of the two parties, and then randomized whether the bill was being considered in the House (where Republicans held the majority) or in the Senate (where Democrats held the majority).

Key Dependent Variables:

Study 1
-Perceived bipartisanship of policy
-Support for policy
-Perceived quality of policy
-Perceived time/effort in crafting legislation

Study 2
-Perceived bipartisanship of policy
-Support for policy
-Evaluations of leaders (Speaker Boehner and the Republicans/President Obama and the Democrats)
-Policy outcome that respondent believes in most bipartisan
-Policy outcome most preferred by respondent

Study 3
-Opinion of whether priority of co-partisans in Congress should be bipartisanship or to stick to positions.
-If compromise is to occur, which party should give up more
-Should role of representatives be bipartisanship or sticking to positions without compromise

Summary of Findings:

(Note: The current findings focus on Studies 1 and 2, as listed above)

The results of these studies highlight two important features of the relationship between mass preferences and partisan conflict in Congress. First, we demonstrate that contrary to expectations from much of the literature, voters do not express any special preference for bipartisan coalitions, preferring them as much or less than coalitions dominated by their own party. Second, we show that voters’ perceptions of bipartisanship reflect partisan biases, both in outcomes and in the evaluations of political leaders. Moreover, respondents perceive outcomes closer to their own party’s position as more bipartisan than compromises that provide a win for the opposing side, and observing a win by one’s own party skews subsequent perceptions of bipartisan outcomes and even preferred policies. Combined, these results suggest that when partisan conflict and a win for your side is an option, bipartisanship is not the preferred outcome despite generic claims for more bipartisanship and compromise. These findings are consistent with our theoretical framework that emphasized that while abstract conceptions of bipartisanship have positive valence, specific instances of compromise activate partisan social identities.

When combined with the broader electoral and policy incentives for members to engage in partisanship, these findings suggest that not only is partisan discord in Congress likely but it is consistent with representation of co-partisans. Thus, the preferences of a member’s constituents further disincentivize bipartisanship rather than work against the numerous other incentives members have to engage in partisan behavior. Moreover, our results raise questions about whether majority parties will be rewarded or punished for pursing partisan policies. Beyond better understanding the basis of partisan conflict in government and whether it raises concerns about democratic failures, especially for representation, understanding public preferences over this politically consequential issue has important implications for scholarly theories and models of elite behavior. Having a more nuanced view of public preferences for moderation, compromise, and bipartisanship can help us better understand the motivations of political leaders and the outcomes that occur when the public is an important audience or actor.


Compromise vs. Compromises: Preferences for Bipartisanship in the American Electorate
IPR working paper (WP-13-01) (PDF; DOC; Online Appendix)

Harbridge, Laurel, Neil Malhotra, and Brian Harrison. 2014. “Public Preferences for Bipartisanship in the Policymaking Process.” Legislative Studies Quarterly. 39: 327-355.

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