An Outbreak of Selective Attribution: Partisanship and Blame in the COVID-19 Pandemic


Matthew H. Graham and Shikhar Singh

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Graham, M., & Singh, S. (2023). An Outbreak of Selective Attribution: Partisanship and Blame in the COVID-19 Pandemic. American Political Science Review, 1-19. DOI:10.1017/S0003055423000047. Published online: 30 March 2023.
Crises and disasters give voters an opportunity to observe the incumbent’s response and reward or punish them for successes and failures. Yet, even when voters perceive events similarly, they tend to attribute responsibility selectively, disproportionately crediting their party for positive developments and blaming opponents for negative developments. We examine selective attribution during the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, reporting three key findings. First, selective attribution rapidly emerged during the first weeks of the pandemic, a time in which Democrats and Republicans were otherwise updating their perceptions and behavior in parallel. Second, selective attribution is caused by individual-level changes in perceptions of the pandemic. Third, existing research has been too quick to explain selective attribution in terms of partisan-motivated reasoning. We find stronger evidence for an explanation rooted in beliefs about presidential competence. This recasts selective attribution’s implications for democratic accountability.
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