The More You Know: Voter Heuristics and the Information Search


Rachel Bernhard and Sean Freeder

Imagine you’re a voter in California this year, looking over dozens of candidates in nearly as many election races. Some names will be unfamiliar to you—perhaps some of the offices, too. Even a very informed voter may be uncertain about the difference in duties between a judge on a court of appeal and a judge on a superior court, for instance. Similarly, the usual clues are often missing in local, non-partisan races like city clerk. Even in races that are nominally non-partisan but more ideological, like mayor, general elections may still be between multiple progressives or multiple conservatives. It’s easy to imagine voters turning to Google or a voting guide to try to inform themselves about the candidates, yet we know little about what they actually search for. What might people “Google” about these local candidates? Do more informed voters look for different sorts of information? How do they react to disappointing or encouraging answers?

Little research addresses these questions, so we began mapping out answers by conducting multiple online survey experiments in 2016. In each experiment, we varied the offices hypothetical candidates were running for and asked respondents to type in—using open-ended text boxes like they would in a search engine—what they wanted to know about the candidates.

We found some things that seemed like good news for democracy: respondents asked for a lot of information about the political backgrounds and policy platforms of the candidates. Voters were also efficient in their searches: they looked for “deal-breaker” items first, rapidly discarding candidates about whom they found discouraging information but only slowly warming to candidates about whom they learned encouraging information. But we found that as voters became more informed, they were more likely to ask for specific, verifiable, and relevant information about candidates. For instance, a well-informed voter might ask for information about a judge’s decision record on sexual assault cases, or the mayor’s plan for local development. Less informed voters were more likely to ask for personalistic information about the candidates: where they were from, what their personality was like, what religion they were. In short, more informed voters looked for good representatives, while less informed voters looked for good people. This raises the possibility that candidates who “look” like a good person (on paper or on a smartphone) might be favored over more qualified or programmatic candidates.

While we hope that these findings generate interest and concern among voters and scholars, we also hope they will spark interest from companies like Google, Bing, and Facebook. In many cases, we expect voters will turn to online search engines to learn more about the candidates. By partnering with non-partisan and non-profit companies like Ballotpedia or BallotReady, these companies could quickly supply voters the information they need: programmatic information about candidates and the responsibilities of the offices in question. In a system where voters must regularly learn about dozens of new candidates while sorting through fake news and an overwhelming amount of online material, a small change like this could mean a big step forward for informed voting.




Seeing Spots?

John Henderson & Alexander Theodoridis

Picture1A hotly contested midterm election brought with it an unusual onslaught of campaign advertising in America. Amazingly, nearly $2 billion was devoted to online advertising in 2018. This represents 22% of total ad buys, more than doubling the figure for the 2016 presidential contest. Mirroring this increase, voters now have much greater control over the amount and type of advertising and other political content they consume. Indeed, voters today have many options – beyond tv, they can actively seek out political information through online media outlets, campaign websites, and social media networks. The DVR and on-demand viewing have put consumers in greater control of their advertising intake. And options like clicking the remote to switch the channel, averting one’s gaze, or getting up to grab food when a political ad appears on television have long been part of the American voter’s selective receipt arsenal. But, what types of political ads are voters most likely to watch or avoid? And how do two core features of campaign advertisements – negativity and partisan source – factor into the choices of viewers?

In an article appearing in the current issue of Political Behavior, we answer these questions with results from a novel survey experiment. Our study exploits the fact that many on-demand video platforms (such as YouTube) give viewers the option to skip an advertisement after a few seconds. Knowing that many online survey respondents are likely familiar with this feature, we replicated it during the 2012 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a nationally representative internet survey fielded by YouGov. Subjects were randomly shown a negative or positive campaign ad from either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney and were allowed to skip after 5 seconds. We recorded the length of time each respondent watched the ad and then provided an opportunity to replay it, share it with friends on social media, or request a link to similar ads.

Our most consistent and striking finding is that the propensity to watch ads depends predominantly on their party source. Both sides seem to be more willing to skip ads from the other party, but Republicans do so much more consistently. Republican respondents were far less likely to watch any Obama ads, while Democrats behaved more heterogeneously. We also see that partisan screening is more pronounced for behaviors that require more effort, such as requesting to share ads on social media. Rather surprisingly, given the conventional wisdom that negative advertising attracts eyeballs, we find that advertising tone does not meaningfully influence watching, skipping, or sharing behaviors.

Our findings show that politicians may face challenges in communicating to out-party voters, even with negative appeals, particularly in media environments where voters are tasked with seeking out political content. Politicians can more easily reach their own partisans in discretion-driven markets, though this may be asymmetric across parties. Our study suggests that partisan selectivity, unlikely to recede in the face of growing polarization, will play an increasingly important role in the multi-cast campaigns of the future.


Politically Speaking: How Speaking Style Affects Voter Opinion

Jacob I. Ricks

Two New York Times reporters in 2012 claimed that presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s formal speaking style was “polite, formal and at times anachronistic,” which hindered his ability to “sell himself to the American electorate.” In contrast, American politicians like George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, and Donald Trump seem to revel in common speech, using lower speaking styles to appeal to voters. Speaking in different ways to increase political appeal isn’t limited to Americans. Former UK Chancellor George Osborne attempted to adopt the cockney accent, and Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte frequently uses slurs and cursing in his speeches. Some politicians even abandon the lingua franca in order to use ethnic tongues, like former Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian’s use of Minnan. While we have an intuitive sense that such changes in speech patterns do have an impact on voters, the degree and effect is up for empirical testing. In other words, does it matter how a politician speaks?

I tackle this question through the use of a survey experiment in Northeast Thailand. Thailand provides an excellent opportunity to evaluate the impact of different speaking styles on voter opinion as the Thai language embodies a set of hierarchical linguistic registers. Each level contains its own vocabulary, with formal styles having been historic symbols of education, refinement, and high social status. Beyond these clearly differentiated types of speech, Thailand is also home to a diverse set of ethnic languages, which have been integrated into the country’s linguistic hierarchy, including the third of Thai people who are native Lao speakers concentrated in Northeast Thailand. Thus, Northeast Thailand’s linguistic environment grants us leverage to test the effect of three different types of speaking: a formal metropole language, an informal version of the metropole tongue, and an ethnic tongue.

In January, 2016, I conducted a survey experiment with 750 respondents split into three groups. Each of the three groups heard a different translation of a clip from a political speech, spoken by the same speaker. In one version, he spoke in the formal register of Standard Thai; in the second, he spoke in the informal register of Standard Thai; and in the third, he relayed the message in the local (Lao) language. The respondents were then asked to answer a set of questions about the speaker.

The results of the surveys showed distinct differences in the way that respondents perceived the potential political candidate. Respondents who heard the speech in formal Standard Thai ranked the speaker higher on questions related to his education level and his preparedness for national office. At the same time, though, the formal speech tended to create social distance between them and the candidate. They also gave the lowest level of responses as to whether they would vote for the candidate. Respondents who heard both informal Standard Thai and Isan both ranked the speaker much lower in terms of education and preparedness for office but much more highly in terms of kinship, with Isan showing the strongest effect. Among those surveyed, the Isan clip also elicited the strongest level of electoral support.

These results show that speech does shape voter opinions. In short, people who heard the formal speech felt the candidate was prepared to lead the country, but they didn’t want to vote for him. People who heard the lower register of speech felt much more kinship to the speaker. And finally, respondents who heard the ethnic language felt like the candidate was not prepared to lead, but they were more likely to say they would vote for him. Among the three types of speech, the ethnic tongue had the most forceful effect on political opinions. In sum, politicians, by using different speaking patterns, influence people’s opinions and can shape support for their candidacy.

The Political Consequences of Self-Insurance: Evidence from Central-Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia

Katerina Tertytchnay and Catherine E. De Vries

In the past decades the cost of protecting against economic uncertainty and income risks has largely shifted from society as a whole to individuals. To insure against risk and compensate for income loss in the event of an economic downturn, poorer and richer households around the world increasingly engage in self-insuring behaviours. They accumulate precautionary savings, invest in risk-hedging assets (like a house for example), or rely on monetary and non-monetary help from friends and family at home or abroad.

Households’ ability to privately manage economic risk and uncertainty is what is generally called self-insurance. Existing research shows that self-insurance affects voters’ redistributive preferences and support for the welfare state. We argue that self-insurance matters not only for what voters want from their governments, but also for how they evaluate their governments to be performing in the first place. More specifically, we suggest that because self-insurance enables households to smooth consumption in times of need, people with access to it hold more positive evaluations of their household finances, as well about how the national economy, and by extension the incumbent, is performing. This also means that voters may be crediting incumbents for their own decisions to manage economic uncertainty rather than based on incumbent performance.

We provide empirical support for our expectations by relying on public opinion survey data from 28 countries in Central Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, and combining it with panel data from Russia and macro-data on economic performance. This data was collected in the context of the Great Recession, when many of the countries in our sample were still experiencing the aftershocks of the crisis. While countries in the region were greatly affected by the economic downturn, state provided insurance, such as unemployment benefits or last resort assistance programmes, were lacking.

Our study shows that among those affected by the downturn, households with access to private safety nets were by 70 per cent less likely to cut down on consumption, or utility payments compared to than households who lacked access. We also show that by enabling citizens to smooth consumption, self-insurance affects how they form economic perceptions. Respondents with access to private safety nets were more optimistic about their household finances and reported better evaluations of national economic performance than their counterparts. Moreover, we find that almost half of the total effect of self-insurance on evaluations of government operates through these improved assessments of national economic performance. We increase the confidence in the findings by providing additional empirical support from panel and cross-sectional surveys from Russia. The evidence from Russia shows that self-insurance generates economic optimism and ameliorates government approval for both government and opposition supporters alike.

These findings are important for three reasons. First, they demonstrate that self-insurance affects people’s economic evaluations and political attitudes. Second, our results extend existing work concerned with the effect of economic (in)security on social policy preferences, and show that in more and less liberal democracies, private safety nets have political ramifications beyond the realm of social policy. Finally, our findings speak to the economic voting literature showing that cross-nationally, statist economic policy regimes and generous social security systems condition the effect of macroeconomic deterioration on turnout, government approval and the vote. Our findings suggest that just like state provisions, private safety nets can also ameliorate support for the government. Shedding light on the mechanisms through which self-insurance influences political attitudes can also go a long way towards explaining why economic downturns may not always affect government approval, even in contexts where economic hardship is rife, and access to public safety nets is limited.

Mass Media and Electoral Preferences during the 2016 US Presidential Race

Christopher Wlezien and Stuart Soroka

Research typically concentrates on how mass media influences voters’ perceptions and preferences.   This is not surprising – we know that election campaigns spend a good deal of time and effort trying to influence the public, and that most campaign information reaches voters through mass media.  But there also are good reasons for news coverage to reflect public opinion rather than affect it, some sociological and others economic.  This expectation may surprise some readers, but we do not regard it as original or especially contentious, just under-studied and so not well understood.  Our recent work explores this aspect of the relationship between media and citizens, focusing on the 2016 US presidential election.  Over roughly 200 days leading up to the November election, we examine the bi-directional relationship between vote intentions and news content.

Our analyses rely on two time series: (1) vote intentions and (2) media “tone.”  The first is based on the many trial-heat polls conducted during the 2016 election year, drawing on data archived by the Huffington Post.  Specifically, we rely on 308 separate national polls during the election year, 100 of which from after the unofficial Labor Day kickoff of the general election campaign.  We aggregate these data to create time series of macro electoral preferences.  The second time series captures the balance of sentiment in news coverage of the two main candidates.  We capture the tone of media coverage for each candidate from roughly 30,000 artices from nine major US newspapers during the election year.  The tone of coverage is then identified using the Lexicoder Sentiment Dictionary (LSD), a simple dictionary-based approach to sentiment analysis.  Using these data, we produce net Clinton-Trump tone in daily coverage.  The analysis relates these two measures, with a focus on whether and when media coverage leads and/or follows voter intentions.

We begin with a basic first-order autoregressive distributed lag (ADL) models relating the variables, where each variable is regressed on lagged values of both itself and the other variable.  This allows us to see whether one variable influences the other, independent of the latter’s own history.  Results show that media coverage does predict vote intentions, but also that those preferences predict the tone of coverage.  That is, the media appeared to both lead and follow the public during the 2016 campaign.

We then incorporate the effects of various campaign events into the analysis.  Doing so reveals that both media coverage and voter preferences reflected certain events, primarily the conventions and the initial Comey intrusion. Taking account of these events, media tone appears to have little impact on voters.  Indeed, the relationship between media and public opinion appears to have changed over the course of the election, and the final weeks of the campaign show no effect of media coverage on electoral preferences.  There similarly is no effect of electoral preferences on the tone of media coverage, at least over short time horizons.  There is some evidence of followership over longer time horizons (beyond several days), however. In sum, media coverage in 2016 appears to have followed electoral preferences at least as much as it led them.

Our analysis has focused on a single election in a single year.  What about presidential elections in other years?  What does the research tell us about the effects of election campaigns more generally?  Clearly, one cannot generalize based on an analysis of 2016 alone.  We nevertheless expect that similar analyses of news coverage will find instances in which media powerfully lead opinion and others where they do not.  Indeed, it may be that the relationship between media coverage and vote intentions varies over the course of campaigns, as seemingly was the case in the 2016 US presidential election.  It is for subsequent work to contemplate the broader role of news coverage – as both leader and follower – during election campaigns in the US and other countries.

Christopher Wlezien is Hogg Professor of Government at the University of Texas at Austin.  Further information about him and his work is available on his website.

Stuart Soroka is Michael Traugott Professor of Communication Studies and Political Science at the University of Michigan.  Further information is available on his website.