The partisan contours of conspiracy theory beliefs

Steven M. Smallpage, Adam M. Enders, Joseph E. Uscinski

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


The “conspiracy theories are for losers” argument suggests that out-of-power groups use conspiracy theories to sensitize minds, close ranks, and encourage collective action. Two necessary conditions of this argument are that (1) group members subscribe mostly to conspiracy theories that malign out-groups or bolster their in-group, and (2) group members must recognize whether conspiracy theories emanate from their own group, an opposing group, or are outside of partisan conflict. Using representative survey data from the 2012 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, we show that conspiracy accusations follow the contours of partisan conflict: partisans accuse opposing groups, rather than co-partisans or non-partisans, of conspiring. Using MTurk data, we show that partisans can differentiate between the conspiracy theories coming from members of each party. We suggest that many conspiracy beliefs behave like most partisan attitudes; they follow the contours of partisan conflict and act as calling cards that send clear signals to co-partisans.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalResearch and Politics
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 1 2017


  • Conspiracy theory
  • Issue ownership
  • Motivated reasoning
  • Partisanship

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Public Administration
  • Political Science and International Relations


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