Why governments can seem politically immune to repeated blunders

There are many ways in which people who follow politics closely or are particularly committed to a party differ from most voters.

One intriguing difference is about how people change their political views. The excellent study The Politics of Competence, finds that those who are most committed to a party (‘partisans’) notice smaller scale events that show the government to be competent or incompetent. These smaller things accumulate over time in their minds.

But for those less into political commitment, there’s usually little such memory of events. These people don’t accumulate views over time, but rather discard the past. That’s why the occasional rare event which cuts through to just about everyone can be so important – because that can shift views.

A major one-off blunder, in other words, is much more dangerous for a party’s reputation than an accumulation of lots of smaller scale blunders.

Or as the authors of the book put it in more rigorous political science terms:

Our analyses confirm that evaluations of performance by partisans or rival partisans are subject to long-term accumulation of short-term performance shocks, whereas evaluations of non-identifiers are only temporarily affected by recent events or performance, exhibiting little ‘memory’ of past shocks and fluctuating noisily.

Partisans notice and respond to past information, exhibiting more performance updating than non-partisans.

The Politics of Competence: Parties, Public Opinion and Voters by Jane Green and Will Jennings is available from Amazon, Bookshop and Waterstones (affiliate links).

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