What Draws Politicians’ Attention? An Experimental Study of Issue Framing and its Effect on Individual Political Elites

Stefaan Walgrave, Julie Sevenans, Kirsten Van Camp & Peter Loewen

Political attention is scarce and consequential. Policy change only happens when political elites attend to the policy issue at hand. But, the number of problems vying for politicians’ attention is too large given the time they have to attend to these problems. Politicians lack the time, resources, staff, cognitive capacities and motivation to attend to all, or even many, problems. This turns the political game into a bottleneck of attention. Many societal signals simply do not get through, but are filtered out and ignored. Politicians are highly selective in the signals they attend to. This study investigates some features of societal signals and examines which features contribute to the underlying information being noticed by politicians.

Following ample research on the attention ordinary citizens spent to media signals, the study examines three features of an incoming signal that may increase the attention politicians give to the signal. We examine (1) whether the message deals with conflict, (2) whether it deals more specifically with political conflict, and (3) whether it refers to who is politically responsible for the problem in the first place. Do politicians react in the same way, and do they devote more attention to signals displaying these features?

By and large, the answer is ‘yes’. Just like ordinary citizens, politicians prioritize information that has certain features or that, technically put, is ‘framed’ in a certain way. We come to this conclusion by examining 410 national and regional politicians in three countries, Belgium, Canada and Israel. These countries were chosen because they are so different. Their electoral systems—how politicians are elected—differs strongly. This means that re-election, this is what politicians probably value most, depends on different things. For example, since Canadian politicians are elected in a district that only counts one representative, Canadian representatives have strong incentives to only look at their constituency and to ignore signals from the rest of the country. This is very different in Israel, for example, were politicians are elected in a nationwide district. Still, notwithstanding these strong system differences, we find almost identical attention devotion patterns in the three countries under study. This makes us conclude that the found framing effects are due to politicians being human and being politicians, they are not due to their operating under a certain electoral system.

More concretely, we confronted each politician that participated in our research with a number of so-called “story titles” that contained a short piece of information (e.g. about down-payment requirements for buying property). We told our politicians that this was a fictional title of an email they received and asked them how likely it was that they would read the full story. The self-reported likelihood that they would read the full story is our measure of the attention politicians devote to the signal. The story titles were manipulated and different versions of a similar story title were made, one containing conflict and the other consensus, one containing political conflict and the other non-political conflict, and one containing a political responsibility attribution and the other a non-political responsibility attribution.

Conflict draws more attention than consensus, the results show, but it mainly draws more attention by opposition politicians, less by government politicians. Political conflict, in contrast, draws more attention in general, but the effect is stronger for government party members than for opposition members. When a signal contains a reference to the political responsibility for a problem, finally, all politicians’ attention is drawn, from government and opposition, and in all countries. This makes a political responsibility frame the strongest of the three frames we investigated. It is a potent driver of political attention.

Pass the Buck If You Can: How Partisan Competition Triggers Attribution Bias in Multilevel Democracies

Guillem Rico and Robert Liñeira

In federations and other decentralized systems, subnational conditions may be seen as the responsibility of either regional governments or the national executive. Previous research has shown that the existence of multiple tiers of government blurs the lines of responsibility, making it more difficult for voters to assign credit or blame for policy performance (Anderson 2000; Powell and Whitten 1993; Whitten and Palmer 1999). However, the information and cognitive barriers posed by the vertical division of power is not the sole obstacle to the formation of accurate responsibility judgments. Attributions of responsibility may be further hampered by voters’ propensity to bring responsibility judgments in line with their group attachments.

In this article, we argue that the institutional dispersion of power not only makes it harder for citizens to know which institution is responsible for policy outcomes, but also facilitates individuals’ rationalization of blame attributions. The two processes have similar observable implications, but imply markedly different micro-mechanisms at work. In the former scenario, the unclear responsibility judgements are due to voters’ inability to attribute responsibility accurately in a complex institutional setting. In the latter scenario, the same complex institutional setting facilitates motivated rationalizations that allow citizens ‘‘pass the buck’’ and adjust their attributions of responsibility according to their identity group attachments; in particular, according to their partisan and territorial identifications.

Party and territorial identifications constitute powerful markers that allow voters to distinguish governments in ‘‘us versus them’’ terms. We advance the argument that group identifications towards parties and territories bias attributions of responsibility only when the regional government and the national government belong to different parties that represent a relevant ingroup-outgroup conflict. In outparty contexts, voters claim success for governments that represent their party and territorial attachments and blame opposite governments for policy failures.

We test this claim using data from one national survey experiment and five regionally representative surveys in Spain. This research design gives us leverage on several grounds. First, by combining the survey experiment with regional surveys greatly improves the external validity of our results. The use of regionally representative, face-to-face surveys allows us to obtain fine-grained, region-by-region descriptive evidence of differences in responsibility attributions when respondents in a real-world situation are not explicitly given an economic treatment. Second, the fact that the experimental and the observational studies are drawn at different points in time allows us to test if the same pattern of attribution bias emerges under very different political and economic contexts. Third, by focusing on subnational cases within a single country, we control for factors such as the regions’ government institutions or the characteristics of the national political system to a far greater extent than is possible in studies that compare units within different federations.

In our online experiment, we use a between-subjects, one-shot design where respondents are randomly assigned to one of three conditions with varying information about the recent evolution of the economic situation in the respondent’s region of residence. The dependent variable is the net regional attribution, that is, the difference between the level of responsibility attributed to the regional government and the level of responsibility attributed to the national government. For the observational study, we test the conditions that affect the net attribution of responsibility for the economy in five different regions that represent the different partisan contexts: inparty, non-nationalist outparty, and nationalist outparty governments.

We find partisan motivated reasoning in action. Our experiment reveals that the influence of partisanship on responsibility judgments varies consistently with both the partisan context and perceptions of the policy conditions: when offered the opportunity to counter-argue a valenced assessment of the regional economy, voters in out-party regions systematically adjust their responsibility judgments to reach a conclusion more in line with their group attachments. By contrast, the attributions of voters under inparty regional governments are not consistently affected by information about the economy. The evidence from out observational study further validates the key role of partisan conflict in activating directional motives.

We also find that territorial identities feelings of attachment may indeed bias attributions in a similar way than partisanship. However, the mere presence of alternative national identities does not appear to automatically translate into the adjustment of attributions in favor of a particular level of government. Rather, substantial rationalizations driven by territorial attachments only occur when regional governments are controlled by nationalist parties seeking to advance a distinct national identity and promote greater autonomy or even independence for the region. Under such circumstances, voters with strong feelings of regional (national) identification will tend to claim successes for the regional (national) government, holding constant their partisan allegiances.

Judging the “Vapid and Hollow Charade”: Citizen Evaluations and the Candor of U.S. Supreme Court Nominees

Philip G. Chen and Amanda C. Bryan

Despite the controversy surrounding the nomination of Neil Gorsuch, the Supreme Court’s newest Associate Justice, his confirmation hearings this Spring occurred with little fanfare or drama. Pundits and political commentators were much more interested in the institutional fight happening behind the scenes – would Senate Republicans remove the filibuster? However, we found the Gorsuch hearings notable for an entirely different reason: they were relatively devoid of substance. Indeed, Gorsuch was a master of employing the so-called “Ginsburg Rule” where nominees decline to comment on specific policy beliefs or jurisprudential philosophies because those issues might one day come before the Court.

While the decision to not answer hypothetical questions aimed at distilling a nominee’s ideological views is nicknamed after Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the tradition likely dates back much further than 1992. Criticism of it is also not new. The prevalence of the “Ginsburg Rule” led then-legal academic Elena Kagan to question the usefulness and validity of the hearings themselves. She now-famously wrote that nominees’ refusing to discuss their views has turned the confirmation hearings into little more than a “vapid and hallow charade”

There has been a small body of excellent work tracing how candid nominees are during the hearings, and what impact this has on the Senate’s vote on the nominee (see especially Farganis and Wedeking 2011; 2014). We are interested in a different question: given that confirmation hearings are often the public’s first exposure to Supreme Court nominees, our article asks (and we think answers) the question of how a nominee’s lack of candor affects how the public forms opinions about that nominee.

In short, we argue a person’s opinions on a Supreme Court nominee are, on one level, merely an example of a political attitude. As such, the biggest factor in whether you support or oppose the nominee is your partisanship and whether your political leanings align with the nominating president. That said, literature from judicial politics suggest that people want something else from their nominees: they want them to appear above the political fray (Gibson and Caldeira 2009; Gibson 2010; Kelly 2010).

We argue that following the “Ginsburg Rule” does just that, making a nominee appear more trustworthy and limiting potential ideological conflicts. Thus, while partisanship should be (and is) the primary driver of evaluations of a nominee, a nominee can bolster support from respondents of the other political party by refusing to answer questions on their views.

We conduct two tests of this expectation. First, using a survey experiment, we recruited around 700 participants from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and then asked them to learn about a hypothetical nominee. Respondents were randomly assigned to learn about a nominee who shared their political beliefs, or a nominee from the opposite political persuasion. We also manipulated whether the participant read about a nominee who was fully forthcoming about their beliefs on a salient political issue during the hearings or refused to answer the question for ethical reasons.

Our survey results gave strong support for our expectation. People in the pro-attitudinal condition, who we expected to support the nominee for ideological reasons, were unaffected by whether the nominee openly expressed their beliefs during the hearings. However, people asked to evaluate a counter-attitudinal nominee demonstrated much higher levels of support when their nominee was reticent to discuss their beliefs during the hearings.

As a secondary analysis we turned to an observational test. For their book, Farganis and Wedeking (2014) coded every answer nominees in the modern era gave to ideological questions, producing a score for each nominee on how candid their responses were. We compared that “forthcomingness score” to state-level partisanship data and a state-level measure of nominee support constructed by Kastellec, Lax and Phillips (2010). Here, too, we find that nominees who openly discuss their positions are “punished” by citizens, especially citizens who disagree with them. But nominees who were less candid saw higher levels of support, especially in ideologically unfriendly states.

Reticence, therefore, is strategically important for Supreme Court nominees who wish to obtain broad public support. Even in light of polls that show American’s may prefer nominees to be forthright during the confirmation hearings, what the people say they want and what is in the best interest of the nominee are at odds. Forthcoming nominees polarize the electorate by providing additional ideological information to their detractors, which in turn produces diminished support for the nominee. For a nominee who wishes to win over the general public, reticence rules.

 

Snap Judgment: Implicit Perceptions of a (Political) Court

Thomas Hansford, Chanita Intawan, and Stephen Nicholson

The Supreme Court takes great pains to avoid the appearance of politics. Yet much of what courts do, especially the Supreme Court, is political. Early in President Trump’s presidency, he claimed that the federal district court overturning his travel ban executive order made “a political decision.” The assumption behind President Trump’s calling the decision political is the expectation that courts ought to be “above politics.” The accusation of courts behaving politically may have important implications for how the public evaluates the Court and its decisions.

There is no shortage of research to support both views. Some scholars have found that the Court is viewed by the public as nonpolitical (or legal) while others have found evidence that it is perceived to be political. We created and tested a novel measure of Court perceptions to address this question.

When researchers want to know what people think about something, they typically ask them questions in a survey. While valuable, self-reported answers have important limitations such as people being unwilling to give certain types of responses. Surveys may also do a poor job capturing an individual’s intuition or gut-level responses, impressions that often shape how a person thinks and behaves. Scholars refer to these intuitions as implicit attitudes. The idea is that people have two types of thinking processes. Implicit attitudes are our automatic, gut-level responses whereas explicit attitudes (answers in a typical survey) stem from slower, more reflective thought processes.

We use the implicit association test (IAT) to measure implicit attitudes in our study. The IAT is a task where individuals rapidly match objects to attributes. The idea is that the faster a match between an object (the Court or Congress) and an attribute (political/non-political) the stronger the association. Using this method, our results show that people make snap judgments about the political nature of the Supreme Court. The Court is implicitly perceived as less political relative to Congress (a fully political referent) and more political relative to traffic court (a non-political referent). In other words, it is somewhere in between political and apolitical. We also find little relationship between implicit perceptions and explicit perceptions (as measured with survey items) of the Court.

We also examined whether snap judgements of the Court matter. Since the Supreme Court depends on the goodwill of others to comply with its rulings, perceptions of the Court’s legitimacy play an important role. If the public views the Court as highly political, the public is less likely to view the Court as legitimate, withdrawing institutional support and acceptance of its decisions. In our analyses, we found support for this idea. Individuals who implicitly associated the Court more with politics were less supportive of the institution. The less you see the Court as political, the more you support it. However, our results for acceptance of the Supreme Court’s decisions were mixed. Snap judgments predicted acceptance of one of two Court decisions in our study suggesting that the effect of implicit political perceptions is likely to vary by characteristics such as preexisting polarization over the issue at stake in the case.

 

The Gag Reflex: Disgust Rhetoric and Gay Rights in American Politics

Shana Kushner Gadarian & Eric van der Vort

Americans are more accepting of lesbian and gay rights than ever. There are many reasons for that growing acceptance, but increased contact and visibility are central elements. Contact and visibility have changed some of the influences that drove attitudes. One changing factor is the emotion disgust, which we explore in our article. We consider (1) what role disgust rhetoric plays in shaping attitudes on gay rights and (2) whether disgust is as effective for persuasion on gay rights today as it used to be. We argue that disgust rhetoric is an effective but contingent tool for persuasion that may backfire in our more accepting time. In contemporary politics, disgust dampens support for rights for lesbians and gays, but for at least some respondents, disgust also prompts anger directed at anti-equality speakers and thus increases support for rights.

Like other emotions, disgust plays an important role in shaping politics. In the physical world, disgust helps people to avoid noxious substances. This maintains physical health and cleanliness, keeping the body safe. In the political world, disgust draws social boundaries around certain groups or activities deemed outside the acceptable limits of particular societies. Research on the political role of disgust shows a link between high levels of disgust sensitivity (or reported feelings of disgust) and political conservatism/traditionalism. These studies typically expose respondents to some disgusting stimuli (e.g. fart spray or photos of a person eating worms) and show a strong connection between felt disgust and conservative responses.

Elites often make emotional appeals, but they do it through language and imagery. Political rallies featuring speakers eating worms would not last very long. Political meetings in unclean places would have low attendance. It is far more effective to invoke the image of a trash heap than to bring your partisans to an actual trash heap.

In our article, we explore the efficacy of disgust rhetoric using the 1993 American National Election Study (ANES) pilot study and two original studies. We first examine the ANES data to establish a baseline for what disgust looked like in the past. The 1993 ANES pilot study included questions about disgust and gay rights that we argue allow us to approximate the effect of disgust in a time before widespread change on gay rights. In 1993, disgust was a powerful predictor of attitudes about lesbians and gays, and drove down support for more inclusive public policy. Respondents who reported being disgusted by homosexuality were less likely to support adoption rights or open military service for lesbians and gays. They were also more likely to negative evaluate lesbians and gays as a group.

We also use two original survey experiments to study the efficacy of disgust and disgust rhetoric. In Study 1, we asked respondents in a treatment condition to actually feel disgust by writing about what made them disgusted about gays and lesbians. In the control condition, respondents wrote down everything that came to mind about gays and lesbians. Writing about disgust produced feelings of disgust as expect, but also produced indignation. For some respondents, disgust occurred in thinking about the ways in which some elites attack or treat lesbians and gays. Some of our respondents reported disgust at the thought of same-sex sexual behavior and relationships, but others were disgusted – even indignant – at the thought of discrimination against lesbians and gays. Study 2 builds on this finding by randomly exposing respondents to a positive, neutral, or disgust frame in a news article about a proposed amendment to ban same-sex marriage. The findings in the second study mimic those of the first study, but in a top-down approach. Exposure to disgust rhetoric lowered support for a wide variety gay rights policies, including adoption and marriage, among those who felt disgust. Yet, some subjects responded to the disgust rhetoric by becoming angry. These feelings of anger actually increased support for rights.

We conclude that disgust is a contingent political tool. Elites may be able to use disgust to shift attitudes on gay rights, but using it in a more inclusive era means that elites would run the risk of producing a pro-egalitarian backlash. Citizens pushed too hard through outdated rhetoric to exclude a group of their fellow citizens they no longer consider dangerous or disgusting may push back against the speakers.

What is issue ownership and how should we measure it?

Rune Stubager

The concept of issue ownership is becoming increasingly prominent in research on both party competition and vote choice. The idea basic idea is that voters hold conceptions of which party is best at handling a given issue, and the party that “owns” an issue in this way is well advised to focus its campaign on the issue since doing so will prime voters to base their vote choice exactly on their assessment of who handles the issue best. On closer inspection, however, the concept of issue ownership is rather unclear and different scholars have more or less different definitions of it. It is unclear, simply, what issue ownership is. There is more – but by no means complete – agreement when it comes to measuring issue ownership where most rely on some version of questions like “Which party is best at handling unemployment?” – or some other issue of interest. But to what extent do answers to such questions really convey independent information over and above voters’ policy attitudes and party identification?

In my article I address these questions about what issue ownership is and how it is best measured. I begin by distilling the core of the concept from the seminal studies in the field – those of Budge and Farlie (1983a; 1983b) and Petrocik (1996) – and the most comprehensive recent treatment (Egan 2013). On this basis I propose to define issue ownership as the perception in a voter’s mind that a specific party over the long term is most competent at handling – in the sense of delivering desired outputs on – a given issue. The definition highlights two aspects of issue ownership that have not been clearly identified by previous work. First, the long-term character of such conceptions is underlined. The temporal dimension has been subject to some discussion in earlier work, but if the concept is to be distinguishable from the fluctuations of performance evaluations, the long-term aspect is important. Likewise, the specification that “handling” involves the delivery of policy outputs is important since it points out what it underlines voters’ fundamental interest in policy outputs – not mere talk on behalf of parties: Even if a party puts a lot of emphasis on, e.g., crime, if it is unable to deliver on its promises, voters should not see it as competent at “handling” crime.

Using this definition, I assess the current practice of measuring issue ownership by means of the standard, “best at handling”-measure mentioned above. In a first step, I use a question wording experiment involving four different issues embedded in a nationally representative sample of Danish voters to assess the validity of the measure by comparing it to a range of alternatives each highlighting different aspects of issue ownership: the short or the long term, parties policy positions or their competencies as well as the mere association of a party with an issue (i.e., so-called “associative issue ownership”, cf. Walgrave et al. 2012). The results contain both good and bad news for the standard measure. On the positive side, it appears more influenced by competence than policy considerations just as it is clearly demarcated from the associative dimension. However, with regard to the temporal aspect, the standard measure is clearly more influenced by short- than long-term considerations. This raises doubts about the validity of the measure vis-à-vis the proposed definition.

The short-term influence on the standard measure also shows up in a fairly high degree of over-time instability which is documented in a second analytical step. Thus, the original experiment was repeated on the very same respondents after a three year period which makes it possible to assess the stability of responses to the various measures. And while the standard measure exhibits as much variation as a short-term focused one, a measure focused on the long-term – e.g., asking “If you disregard the current situation and look, instead, at the last 30-40 years which party is then in your opinion best at handling crime?” – is, as should be expected, the most stable.

The long-term measure also appears preferable in the third analytical step where I investigate the degree of overlap between, on the one hand, party identification and policy attitudes and, on the other, issue ownership as measured in the different ways mentioned. Thus, the long-term measure, which is both more valid and more stable than the standard one, also turns out to be more independent of the two well-known voter predispositions. This means that the long-term measure picks up more unique variation than the standard measure. The latter, therefore, is more redundant (the analyses suggest that it shares about 50 % of its variation with these predisposition), than the long-term one.

On this background, I suggest to replace the standard measure with the long-term alternative. Not only is the latter more valid and stable, it is also more unique vis-à-vis other, well-established concepts. In other words, it provides more leverage for scholars interested in what issue ownership is and where it comes from – but also with respect to what it does. If one disregards the issues of validity and redundancy identified in my analysis it would, hence, amount to building on sand, since one wouldn’t really know what issue ownership is, nor to what extent it provides independent information.

The analyses also suggest that it may be misleading to talk of a separate dimension of “associative issue ownership”. Thus, the comparison of a measure hereof with all other measures included in the analysis shows it to be almost completely independent and since the associative dimension does not involve any necessary positive aspect – i.e. that a party is “best” in some way – I would argue that the phenomenon is best dealt with under a different term than (a dimension of) issue ownership.

Presidents Shaping Public Opinion in Parliamentary Democracies: A Survey Experiment in Turkey

Erdem Aytaç and Ali Çarkoğlu

In our article in Political Behavior, we focus on how presidential heads of state can shape public opinion in parliamentary democracies. Many parliamentary democracies feature a president who is elected directly by voters or indirectly by the parliament. The institutional arrangement of a directly elected president alongside a prime minister, which has come to be designated as semi-presidentialism by some scholars (e.g., Elgie, 1999), is especially popular among the democracies of Central and Eastern Europe.

The relationship of presidents with other political actors, especially with prime ministers, has not always been amicable. Public exchanges of policy disagreements and accusations of power grab are not uncommon. Recent examples of such conflictual episodes include debates over presidential powers in Czech Republic, over a controversial nuclear project in Hungary, over media freedoms in Bulgaria, and over the handling of the migrant crisis in Croatia. One plausible strategy of presidents to exert influence during such conflicts is to make public statements in an effort to capitalize on their prestige and popularity to rally support for their preferred policy positions.

How do voters react when presidents make issue statements to shape public opinion? To address this question, we focus on the role of partisanship. While presidents in these systems have at least a nominally, if not formally, nonpartisan status as the head of state, they often have had a long political careers with well-known party affiliations before assuming the presidency. And we know that partisanship plays a prominent role in individuals’ opinion formation (Campbell et al., 1960; Zaller, 1992). Extensive research has shown a strong link between party identification and issue opinions such that individuals are more likely to report issue opinions that are in line with their preferred party’s position (e.g., Bartels, 2000, 2002; Brader and Tucker, 2012; Nicholson, 2012; Samuels and Zucco, 2014). In addition, endorsements of a particular issue position by a rival party or candidate typically lead partisans to further distance themselves from that position (out-group effects).

The role of partisanship in presidents’ efforts to shape public opinion in parliamentary democracies is far from straightforward, however. One might expect such statements to evoke partisan reactions, since in many cases presidents were major partisan figures before assuming the presidency. Yet at the same time the office of the presidency in parliamentary democracies has typically a nonpartisan status as the president is the head of the state representing the unity of the nation. Accordingly, the legitimacy and moral authority accrued to the office of the president might trump any partisan considerations, and therefore partisan reactions might not be invoked.

We argue that partisan reactions depend on the relationship between the domain of issue statements and prerogatives of the president. Specifically, statements about issue domains within the prerogatives of the presidential office should not lead to out-group effects. Such statements will be perceived as a legitimate use of constitutional powers, and the nonpartisan character of the presidential office will dominate any partisan considerations. Therefore the partisan background of the president will not have a polarizing effect on opposition partisans. In contrast, we predict partisan reactions when the statements are considered outside presidential prerogatives. These statements will be contentious, and politicians opposing the president’s agenda will challenge them as politically motivated overreach of institutional powers. In this case a partisan controversy will ensue, leading voters to align themselves along partisan lines.

We present evidence in support of our argument from a partisan cue experiment embedded into a nationally representative survey conducted in Turkey, a parliamentary democracy with a constitutionally nonpartisan presidential office at the time of our study. In August 2014, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the founder and former leader of the incumbent Justice and Development Party became the first popularly elected president of Turkey. Our experimental manipulations show that when Erdoğan makes a statement about an issue outside his prerogative, both in-group and out-group partisan responses are invoked, just as we would expect for cues from a strictly partisan actor. In contrast, a statement about an issue domain considered to be within the responsibilities of his office does not lead to out-group bias among opposition partisans. Moreover, respondents with no partisan affiliations seems to be persuaded by Erdoğan regardless of the issue domain, a result that highlights the moral authority of the office of the president in the Turkish context.

Our results suggest that presidential heads of state in parliamentary democracies have a unique advantage over other partisan figures in influencing public opinion, at least in certain areas. Earlier research indicates that statements from partisan actors typically persuade in-group co-partisans while at the same time polarizing out-group members (Nicholson, 2012; Samuels and Zucco, 2014). In contrast, we show that presidents, even those with strongly partisan backgrounds, can persuade some segments of the population while not polarizing others when they make issue statements in domains within their prerogatives. This might prove an important asset when they seek to expand their political influence. And our research also helps to explain why many institutional crises and intra-executive conflicts turn into debates about prerogatives with presidents seeking to define their prerogatives broadly while opponents trying to convince the public that the president has stepped out of his or her constitutional powers.