Current literature often suggests that more information and choices will enhance citizens’ general political knowledge. Notably, some studies indicate that a greater number of state ballot initiatives raise Americans’ knowledge through increases in motivation and supply of political information. By contrast, we contend that political psychology theory and findings indicate that, at best, more ballot measures will have no effect on knowledge. At worst greater use of direct democracy should make it more costly to learn about institutions of representative government and lessen motivation by overwhelming voters with choices. To test this proposition, we develop a new research design and draw upon data more appropriate to assessing the question at hand. We also make use of a propensity score matching algorithm to assess the balance in the data between initiative state and non-initiative state voters. Controlling for a wide variety of variables, we find that there is no empirical relationship between ballot initiatives and political knowledge. These results add to a growing list of findings which cast serious doubt on the educative potential of direct democracy.
Research on U.S. congressional elections has placed great emphasis on the role of competitiveness, which is associated with high levels of campaign spending, media coverage, and interest group and party involvement. Competitive campaigns have been found to increase citizens' participation, engagement and learning. However, little is known about whether the effects of competitive campaigns have enduring consequences for citizens' attitudes and behavior. Analyzing a survey of citizens conducted one year after the 2006 congressional elections that includes an oversample of respondents from competitive House races, we examine whether exposure to a competitive House campaign affects voters' political knowledge and political interest as well as their consumption of political news. We find that competitive elections have positive effects that endure for at least a year beyond the campaign season, reinforcing the idea that political competition plays a robust role in American representative democracy.
We propose the contact–cue interaction approach to studying political contact—that cues from trusted political elites can moderate the effect of contact on the formation of public policy opinions. Allport’s initial formulation of the contact effect noted that it relies on authority support. In a highly polarized political era, authoritative voices for individuals vary based on party identification. Social experiences may affect public policy, but they must also be considered in light of partisan filters. Using data from the 2006 CCES, we examine the manner in which straight respondents with gay family members, friends, co-workers and acquaintances view same-sex marriage policy, finding a strong contact effect among Democrats, but no contact effect among the strongest Republican identifiers. Our data and analyses strongly support the perspective that social interactions (and their effect on policy) are understood through the lens of partisanship and elite cues.
When a public problem is perceived to be poorly addressed by current policy, it is often the case that credible alternative policies are proposed to both the status quo’s left and right. Specially designed national surveys show that in circumstances like these, many Americans’ preferences are not single-peaked on the standard left-right dimension. Rather, they simply want the government to “do something” about the problem and therefore prefer both liberal and conservative policies to the moderate status quo. This produces individual and collective preferences that are double-peaked with respect to the left-right dimension. Double-peakedness is less prevalent on issues where no consensus exists regarding policy goals, and it increases when exogenous events raise the public’s concern about the seriousness of a policy problem.
How do Americans think about energy? Is the debate over fossil fuels highly partisan and ideological? Does public opinion about fossil fuels and alternative energies divide along the fault between red states and blue states? And how much do concerns about climate change weigh on their opinions? In Cheap and Clean, Stephen Ansolabehere and David Konisky show that Americans are more pragmatic than ideological in their opinions about energy alternatives, more unified than divided about their main concerns, and more local than global in their approach to energy.
Drawing on extensive surveys they designed and conducted over the course of a decade (in conjunction with MIT’s Energy Initiative), Ansolabehere and Konisky report that beliefs about the costs and environmental harms associated with particular fuels drive public opinions about energy. People approach energy choices as consumers, and what is most important to them is simply that energy be cheap and clean. Most of us want energy at low economic cost and with little social cost (that is, minimal health risk from pollution). The authors also find that although environmental concerns weigh heavily in people’s energy preferences, these concerns are local and not global. Worries about global warming are less pressing to most than worries about their own city’s smog and toxic waste. With this in mind, Ansolabehere and Konisky argue for policies that target both local pollutants and carbon emissions (the main source of global warming). The local and immediate nature of people’s energy concerns can be the starting point for a new approach to energy and climate change policy.
As the first African-American nominee for president of a major political party, Barack Obama's campaign and ultimate victory reminded voters, scholars, pundits, and the press of the centrality of race in American political life. Speculation by observers of all types centered around the potential impact of race as an individual psychological prejudice and/or as a geographic/contextual factor. These two themes parallel different leading scholarly treatments of race and racism in the USA. Rather than choose one theme or the other, in this paper, we bring both traditions together in a unified analysis of white voter response to Obama. We find strong evidence that the level of prejudice toward African-Americans held by whites affected their evaluations of Obama as well as their probability of voting for him. In contrast, we find little evidence that whites responded to the racial context of their immediate geographic environment.
Party cues provide citizens with low-cost information about their representatives’ policy positions. But what happens whenelected officials deviate from the party line? Relying on the 2006 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), weexamine citizens’ knowledge of their senators’ positions on seven high-profile roll-call votes. We find that although politicallyinterested citizens are the group most likely to know their senator’s position when she votes with the party, they are alsothe group most likely to incorrectly identify their senator’s position when she votes against her party. The results indicatethat when heuristics “go bad,” it is the norm for the most attentive segment of the public to become the most misinformed,revealing an important drawback to heuristic use.
One of the most striking findings in political science is the democratic peace: the absence of war between democracies. Some authors attempt to explain this phenomenon by highlighting the role of public opinion. They observe that democratic leaders are beholden to voters and argue that voters oppose war because of its human and financial costs. This logic predicts that democracies should behave peacefully in general, but history shows that democracies avoid war primarily in their relations with other democracies. In this article we investigate not whether democratic publics are averse to war in general, but whether they are especially reluctant to fight other democracies. We embedded experiments in public opinion polls in the United States and the United Kingdom and found that individuals are substantially less supportive of military strikes against democracies than against otherwise identical autocracies. Moreover, our experiments suggest that shared democracy pacifies the public primarily by changing perceptions of threat and morality, not by raising expectations of costs or failure. These findings shed light on a debate of enduring importance to scholars and policy makers.
We investigate the relationship between controversial roll call votes and support for Democratic incumbents in the 2010 midterm elections. Consistent with previous analyses, we find that supporters of health care reform paid a significant price at the polls. We go beyond these analyses by identifying a mechanism for this apparent effect: constituents perceived incumbents who supported health care reform as more ideologically distant (in this case, more liberal), which in turn was associated with lower support for those incumbents. Our analyses show that this perceived ideological difference mediates most of the apparent impact of support for health care reform on both individual-level vote choice and aggregate-level vote share. We conclude by simulating counterfactuals that suggest health care reform may have cost Democrats their House majority.
This article explores the relationship between individual-level sociability and political engagement. While some evidence exists that individual-level sociability may be related to political engagement and interest, little is known about the ways in which sociability affects participation in different forms of political activity, particularly newer forms of online political engagement. Using data from the 2009 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, we explore the ways in which individual-level sociability affects political engagement in a range of activities, including online political discussions. We find sociability levels affected some activities more than others. Sociability has no impact on more socially isolated political activities such as voter registration and voting, but greatly impacts engagement in political activities involving a higher degree of social interaction, such as attending a meeting where a member of Congress was present and discussing politics with others, both in person and online. These findings help explain longstanding questions about the factors that motivate participation in traditional political activities as well as newer online forms of political engagement.