Posts Tagged ‘public opinion’

Sources of information, salience and novelty, and belief reversion

In this year’s MAPOR panel, Ken Blake’s presentation looked at belief that Barack Obama was born outside the United States, and Doug Hindman talked a bit about right-wing denial of the September unemployment numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Both issues are good example cases for a phenomenon that we might call belief reversion.

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Filed: Super Special Questions || 19:51, November 23 || No Comments »

The first slide of my MAPOR presentation

I’m following up last year’s belief gap study at MAPOR this year, and analysis is still in progress, but I’ve found the thing that will open my presentation in Chicago — it’s these polls from Public Policy Polling in Ohio and North Carolina:

Who do you think deserves more credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden: Barack Obama or Mitt Romney?

OHIO All Democrats Independents Republicans
Barack Obama 63% 86% 64% 38%
Mitt Romney 6% 1% 1% 15%
Not Sure 31% 13% 36% 47%
NORTH CAROLINA All Democrats Independents Republicans
Barack Obama 63% 87% 61% 29%
Mitt Romney 6% 1% 3% 15%
Not Sure 31% 11% 36% 56%

Got that? Nearly 1 in 6 Republicans in these swing states say Mitt Romney deserves more credit than Barack Obama does for Osama bin Laden’s death. Unlike, say, the auto bailout, which Romney occasionally claims he ought to be credited for, neither Romney nor anyone else has ever said he deserves credit for this. And why would he? By any standard it’s a belief that’s totally detached from reality. And yet, there it is.

Filed: Science Is Real || 10:12, September 11 || 1 Comment »

Ground and pound

Interesting fact I learned while researching this post: West Virginia is less black than Wisconsin. (Photo by Matt Dell)

I spent the summer busy with travel and research, and let the blog go on hiatus. Well, fall classes start today, so now’s a great time to get back to procrastinating thinking out loud.

USA Today and Suffolk University released an interesting survey of “unlikely” voters a few days ago, which has gotten quite a bit of attention. It’s worth noting that their methodology is unclear in the report — they’ve got a sample of 800, but was that simply culled from a larger, general sample that also included some number of likely voters? At any rate, the big takeaway is that unlikely voters strongly favor Barack Obama over Mitt Romney, though about one-fifth say they would vote for a third-party candidate if they were to vote. This is perhaps the strongest evidence yet for the importance of turnout to Obama’s chances. In 2008, he got much bigger than usual turnout from traditionally low-turnout groups, most notably young adults and African-Americans. Many of these voters are probably still turning up as “unlikely” in typical polling models.

But a deeper look inside the data shows just where the Obama ground campaign is needed the most: convincing overconfident supporters that their vote is needed. Three-quarters of “unlikely” black voters expect Obama to win, but almost all say they would vote if they felt it could swing the election. Now, this probably shouldn’t be taken too literally, since no one really expects the election to come down to one vote, but it is worth thinking about how and where energized black turnout to have the most impact. Of the ten states with the highest proportion of African-Americans, six are solid red, two are solid blue, and North Carolina and Virginia are up for grabs. These were big Obama takeaways in 2008, in part because of black turnout. Florida is number 11 on that list, and carrying those three swing states would basically clinch the election.

The assumption in 2008 was that the Obama campaign had a great turnout operation, but I’m not sure if anyone knows whether that’s true or not — his candidacy certainly energized a lot of black voters on its own, but that doesn’t mean the campaign necessarily did anything extra-special to get them out to vote. If the campaign has data similar to what this poll shows, they would be well served by targeting black voters now, not with persuasive appeals that are largely unnecessary, but with sobering reminders that the election isn’t over until it’s over.

Filed: We R in Control || 10:12, August 20 || No Comments »

Who cues?

At the MAPOR conference last weekend, I presented a study on how partisan media strengthens belief gaps. The belief gap idea, first identified by Doug Hindman a couple years ago, is an extension of the knowledge gap, a theory with over 40 years of work behind it. Whereas the knowledge gap hypothesis suggests that education predicts differential gains of knowledge about political issues — everyone learns, but high-education people learn more, creating a widening gap — the belief gap hypothesis suggests that ideology is better than education for such predictions. It’s called the “belief” gap because the conceptualization of beliefs better fits the context in which facts and knowledge are politically contested.

My paper (with students Delwar Hossain and Ben Lyons) took the initial findings and expanded them in three ways. First, we examined partisanship in addition to ideology and found that it’s consistently a better predictor of beliefs. We attribute this to both being essentially markers of group affiliation, but partisanship being a clearer one for both researchers and survey respondents. Ideology has long been conceptualized as a coherent belief system that drives opinion-formation, but most research suggests few people actually have this kind of formal ideology. Instead, we use cues from elites to guide our opinions, attitudes and beliefs.

Second, we examined the role of partisan traditional and social media in the belief gap process. Despite concern that social media are politically polarizing and insular, we found that partisan traditional media are far stronger drivers of partisan beliefs. There is a structural explanation for this — cable TV and radio have far larger audiences than do blogs and pundits’ social media outlets — as well as a psychological one — we’re exposed to more elite opinion through these outlets, whether those elites are elected officials or opinion-leading commentators.

Finally, we examined belief gaps in five issues — two science-related issues that had previously been studied by Hindman (climate change and abstinence-only sex education), two evidence-free rumors about President Obama (he’s a Muslim, he was born outside the U.S.) and one factual economic issue (whether most Americans’ taxes have gone up during the Obama Administration). Each of these issues has a correct answer by consensus of relevant authorities, but each is also highly politicized. We found belief gaps for each, with largely similar patterns of partisan media influence.

I lay all this out because thinking about our findings in the context of the other presentations in the belief gap panel — from Hindman; Ken Blake and Misa Culley; and Rob Daves, Allen White and Stephen Everett — led me to thinking a lot about the broader, more abstract facets of this idea.1 To my mind, there are two big questions to be answered. First, we need to think about what things a person can have “beliefs” about. During the panel, Rob Daves talked about “verifiable” issues and referenced the work of Cecilie Gaziano in this area, but I think we can think of this in cognitive terms. Given that the belief gap idea grow out of the knowledge gap, I suggest that we look towards the cognitive structure of knowledge to understand what we mean by “belief.” Presumably we are thinking of issues about which the believer can feel that their beliefs are “correct,” even if all evidence and authoritative consensus suggests otherwise, even if there is no consensus to draw on, and even if the answer exists but is unknowable. We may further want to separate issues that are retrospective (about which verification may already be possible), prospective (about which verification can’t be done yet) and ongoing (about which verification may be ephemeral or in constant dispute). These orthogonal issue dimensions would co-exist with the dimension already in use in existing research, politicization.2 The typology might look something like this — consistent with a seat-of-the-pants typology, the examples are the results of just some quick thinking on this and may not fit all that well:

Politicized Non-politicized
Retrospective Prospective Ongoing Retrospective Prospective Ongoing
Consensus Obama born in U.S. Global temperatures will rise Climate change Lincoln killed by Booth Vaccines and autism
Disputed Roe v. Wade lowered crime rate Economy will improve next year Gun ownership and safety JFK killed by Oswald
Unknowable 2000 election stolen Jesus will return someday Alien life exists

If we believe that the process observed in the belief gap phenomenon is one of elite cuing by like-minded political leaders (consistent with the work of, e.g., John Zaller), the next question is who does the cuing across the range of this issue typology. For politicized issues, we’ve got a pretty strong hypothesis that political elites provide the most relevant cues, but who those elites are might vary by issues. Particularly for issues that are politicized along evangelical/non-evangelical religious lines, we might expect to see different people and sources playing important roles in mass-opinion formation. Maybe economic, defense and science issues all have different arrays of influential elites; still, we’re probably talking about a relatively narrow band of elites that cue beliefs across a lot of political issues.

But what about beliefs for which elite political cues are not relevant? With the possible exception of Michele Bachmann, nobody’s politicizing childhood vaccinations. So who cues beliefs about vaccinations? Is it scientific consensus (as reported by news media)? Jenny McCarthy? Oprah? If we can explain how non-political beliefs are cued, we may go a long way toward identifying the underlying cognitive and social psychological processes of political belief formation.

1. I should also acknowledge the suggestions of several members of the SIUC political science department (particularly Tobin Grant and Scott McClurg) during a preliminary presentation of this work, which I subsequently incorporated into the final product, and which have informed my ongoing thinking about this topic.

2. There’s another wrinkle here, which is the concept of issue domains and the cognitive work that goes into connecting our attitudes on related issues. For example, in the data used in our paper above, beliefs that tax cuts encourage job creation and that federal deficits discourage job creation were strongly correlated, even though tax cuts help to increase deficits. Additionally, our respondents also anticipate strong inflation over the next year, even though we’ve been in a period of historically low inflation during the global recession. What it looks like is that, instead of considering each issue on its own, there’s a relationship between all these economic issues and general economic attitudes — that is, the economy is bad, and inflation is bad, so we’re in an inflationary period. Job creation is good and tax cuts are good, so they must go together. Probably relevant, but also probably not worth getting into until the first level of questions have been worked out.

Filed: Science Is Real || 20:11, November 21 || 2 Comments »

Civility out of context

I fielded a survey recently, and this out of context result really intrigues me. For the non-quantitative people, these are regression results that show how each variable predicts the outcome variable with all the others controlled. The outcome here is agreement with the statement, “When most Americans debate issues facing the country, they are more civil today compared to ten years ago.” I’m looking at blog use, ideology and partisanship in this study, and here are the predictive results (the ones with the footnote symbols are statistically significant):

Gender (Female) .03
Age -.05
Race (White) -.19***
Education -.11*
Income .01
Partisanship (Republican) .10†
Ideology (Conservative) -.04
Conservative Blog Use .23**
Liberal Blog Use .03
*** p < .001, ** p < .01, * p < .05, † p < .1


I’m pretty sure that the partisanship and conservative blog use results are manifestations of those individuals remembering 2001 as a time when everybody was being so mean to George W. Bush all the time. It’s likely also the reverse — Democrats seeing the current environment as severely uncivil — but the distribution of the blog use data suggests to me it’s more the former than the latter. More on this at MAPOR next month.

Filed: Science Is Real || 19:53, October 1 || No Comments »

My country, right or wrong

Via Matthew Yglesias, the Washington Post seems to have come close to answering the question I asked in the last post:

17. Please tell me whether you agree or disagree with the following statement: Whatever its faults, the United States still has the best system of government in the world. Do you agree or disagree?

            Agree   Disagree   No opinion
9/8/11       77       21          2
10/3/10      77       21          2
12/19/07*    81       17          1
12/15/00     89       11          *
5/6/96**     83       15          2
4/9/95**     85       14          1
9/1/94**     84       13          3
*ABC News/Facebook; **ABC News

I’d quibble with the wording a bit (“Whatever its faults” seems like it would prime dismissal of those faults), and I think this is a question that’s being asked in the absence of much knowledge of other political systems among the American public, but still, we’re not getting rid of the Senate any time soon.

Filed: Science Is Real || 22:24, August 14 || No Comments »

Structure and cosmetics

Matt Yglesias has a solid post summing up something he’s been harping on quite a bit lately — the strange obsession of Washington elites with a fantasy, “centrist” president. The main point he makes — that we already have a decidedly centrist president, and that a “non-partisan” replacement for Obama wouldn’t change anything in terms of policy — is the most salient one on this particular topic. All of the pining for Mike Bloomberg, Lincoln Chaffee or whomever the third-party flavor of the month is rests on the fervent and mistaken belief that Barack Obama’s agenda is that of a socialist revolutionary.

But the secondary point that Yglesias makes is actually the more broadly interesting one:

The main difference, as far as I can see, is that getting executive branch nominees confirmed would be much more difficult for a nonpartisan president. Essentially every nominee would be greeted with overwhelming hostility from all quarters as Senators seek leverage points to influence executive branch policy.

It’s boring, and it’s not a satisfying answer, but it’s true that most of the structural-institutional problems with the federal government can be traced back to the Senate, either in its existence or its design. This is just one example — the president has to go to the Senate, hat in hand, to get a significant portion of his administration staffed. Add the filibuster to the mix, and you’re left with a situation in which 41 senators can decide that they don’t like an executive agency and that it can’t have a director, no matter what. The routine deployment of filibuster threats and anonymous holds also means that standard-issue legislation requires a supermajority in the Senate to pass, and the Constitutional design of the upper house drastically overrepresents small states in both Congress and the electoral college.

Many of the problems caused by the Senate are things that the public dislikes — it increases horsetrading and bickering, and makes it more difficult to pass even minor legislation. But would it be possible to get rid of the Senate? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that you could get 67 senators to vote for a Senate-abolishing Constitutional amendment and that the biggest hurdle came from the general public. I doubt anyone’s ever polled support for abolishing the Senate, but in the wake of the 2000 election, there was never a time when abolishing the electoral college even enjoyed support at the level of Al Gore’s popular vote total — that is, at the time when such a move should’ve been at its most popular, even some of the voters who got screwed by this institutional anachronism still didn’t want to get rid of it. I wonder whether this reaches back to the way civic education works here, with an emphasis in both formal schooling and informal norms on reverence for the Constitution. Even though it’s totally stupid in 2011, the Senate is a central part of how American government operates, and it appears that the public is much more likely to see and judge individual political actors than the largely invisible institutions that restrict them.

Filed: Super Special Questions || 16:29, July 31 || 2 Comments »

Keep talking

For the most part, I’m not interested in giving the Koch brothers legitimate political advice; even if I were so interested, they’re probably not reading this anyway. But I will say that David Koch, in knocking Barack Obama over the Bin Laden raid, is wasting an opportunity:

He just made the decision, it was obvious where the guy is. He was one of the worst terrorists organizing attacks on the United States. I mean, no president in his right mind would not approve that decision to go eliminate him. So he’s getting a lot of recognition and his polls have jumped up, but his decision was the easiest of them all. The real hard work was done by the intelligence and the SEALs.

Never mind that there actually was some significant risk in approving this operation, and never mind that both George W. Bush and John McCain foreswore undertaking such an operation without consulting Pakistan and its unreliable intelligence service — Koch also called Obama a “hardcore socialist” and “scary,” so it’s not like these comments are an example of reasoned public policy thinking. Going after Obama does two things that are both bad for Koch (and the other right-wingers who are doing the same). First, it makes Koch look like a petty whiner. That may not be a super-big deal for him, because he’s not running for anything, but thanks to Scott Walker, Koch is now a fairly well-known figure in ultra-conservative politics and should be thinking about his image.

But much more importantly, the longer the Bin Laden raid is salient in the public mind, the longer Obama’s approval will stay inflated. Krosnick and Kinder produced a seminal paper over 20 years ago on the effects of priming on presidential approval. Back then they looked at data from a 1986 survey that was in the field when the Iran-Contra affair came to light. What they found, not surprisingly, is that Ronald Reagan’s Central America policy played a larger role in his job approval after the revelations than before. In that case it was bad for the president, because the salient new information was negative; in the modern example, it’s good for the president, because the new information is seen as positive by the public. If Koch and the rest would avoid turning this into a confrontation, either by simply congratulating Obama or by just shutting up, the press would lose an easy way to keep the story bigger and more lively, it would fade from salience more quickly, returning the focus to the economic issues on which Obama is vulnerable.

But David, by all means, keep talking.

Filed: We R in Control || 16:34, May 5 || No Comments »

Are counterintuitive policies politically possible?

Lately I’ve been wrestling with the idea that “common sense” will always win out when policy is rendered through appeals to public opinion. That is, whatever option seems most intuitively correct — even if theory or empirical data suggest it’s wrong — will gather the most public support and will have the best chance of being translated into policy. This function might wax and wane with populism in general, such that in the crisis moments when populism peaks, common sense has its greatest sway over policy outcomes.

Our current economic black hole and the associated “debate” over raising the debt ceiling — which is not so much a debate as two sides agreeing about what must be done with one side nonetheless demanding payment for doing so — provide a terrific test case. Since becoming aware of the existence of the federal debt on January 20, 2009, many Republicans have leaned heavily on the common sense notion that, once in debt, further spending just makes things worse. “On what planet do they try to reduce the deficit by spending even more?” Tim Pawlenty asked the crowd at CPAC. And of course, that feels right to many people — after all, spending must be what got us in debt in the first place.

But also of course, it’s totally wrong. People and organizations spend to get out of debt all the time — it’s called investing. As an example, when I left the workforce to go to grad school, I had household debt. Nevertheless, I took on more debt in the form of student loans to cover my first year. Now I have a higher-paying job, more opportunity for advancement and less debt. Likewise, firms that are in the red borrow so that they continue to spend money, hopefully in ways that will increase future revenue and take them into profit. This isn’t rocket science. It’s not even Keynesian economics, which suggests that the government should engage in counter-cyclical budgeting (that is, spending in bad times and saving in good times) in order to offset lost demand from the private sector, also encouraging deficit spending in the current economic climate.

And yet, 63% of Americans oppose raising the debt ceiling. Votes to raise the debt ceiling typically succeed, but they also are often undertaken in a partisan fashion, which may ultimately leave many Democratic members of Congress vulnerable to “Rep. So-and-So voted to raise the debt ceiling and enable Obama’s shopping spree!” attacks. Perhaps this all goes back to the catch-all explanation for poor policy and contradictory bits of public opinion: Too many people don’t know anything, but think they know enough to have formed fairly solid opinions. That’s a really unsatisfying conclusion for a variety of reasons, but it’s hard not to see at the core of politicians’ ability to exploit the public’s reflexive reliance on “common sense” as a policy foundation.

Filed: Super Special Questions || 13:50, May 3 || No Comments »