Same Facts, Different Interpretations: Partisan Motivation and Opinion on Iraq


Brian J. Gaines is associate professor of political science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL 61801. James H. Kuklinski is the Matthew T. McClure Professor of Political Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL 61801. Paul J. Quirk is Phil Lind Chain in U.S Politics and Representation, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC Canada V6T 1Z4. Buddy Peyton is a graduate student in political science, University of Illinois, Urbana, IL 61801. Jay Verkuilen is assistant professor of psychology, City University of New York, New York, NY 10019.


Scholars assume that citizens perform better when they know pertinent facts. Factual beliefs, however, become relevant for political judgments only when people interpret them. Interpretations provide opportunities for partisans to rationalize their existing opinions. Using panel studies, we examine whether and how partisans updated factual beliefs, interpretations of beliefs, and opinions about the handling of the Iraq war as real-world conditions changed. Most respondents held similar, fairly accurate beliefs about facts. But interpretations varied across partisan groups in predictable ways. In turn, interpretations, not beliefs, drove opinions. Perversely, the better informed more effectively used interpretations to buttress their existing partisan views.