When disaster strikes in federal systems, who do citizens blame and why? While several literatures posit that partisanship shapes patterns of blame attribution, the mechanism driving this relationship remains disputed. Specifically, whereas partisan blame attribution (PBA) suggests that partisans hold distinct preferences regarding which level of government should devise policies in times of crisis—and subsequently hold said level accountable when failure is observed—partisan federalism (PF) suggests that citizens opportunistically assign blame to the level of government controlled by their disfavored party. In this study, we examine the extent to which each theory explains patterns of blame attribution related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Leveraging panel survey-data collected before the 2020 election and after the 2021 transition, we find that Democrats follow PF expectations, whereas Republicans follow PBA expectations. Our findings indicate that scholars should revisit blame attribution and more carefully consider the role of federalism in determining citizen preferences.
References have been corrected/updated. NSF grant information added.