2018 Report from the Editor

David Peterson

The 2018 report from the editor is available here.  If anyone has questions or would like more information, feel free to contact me.


New Editors of Political Behavior

David Peterson

I am pleased to announce that effective January 1, 2019 the editors of Political Behavior will be Geoffrey C. Layman and Benjamin Radcliff, both of the University of Notre Dame!  A full announcement is available on journal’s page: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11109-018-9492-2



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.


Does Partisan Self-interest Dictate Support for Election Reform? Experimental Evidence on the Willingness of Citizens to Alter the Costs of Voting for Electoral Gain

Daniel R. Biggers

That elected officials seek to change electoral rules and institutions for their own advantage is widely accepted by both academics and in public discourse. Such efforts are perhaps best illustrated by the decades-long partisan battle across states over the ease with which eligible citizens can exercise their right to vote. Debates over what identification one must show to vote, when and how one can vote, and the degree to which state governments should facilitate the voter registration process all divide officials along partisan lines based on how those changes might impact future electoral prospects.

Less clear is whether average citizens think about electoral policies in a similar manner. Previous research suggests they do: partisans often share the preferences for election laws of their party’s leaders, and those identifying with the party out of power are more favorable toward reforms that could improve their chances of future electoral and policy success. That work, however, fails to conclusively show that citizens engage in this type of evaluation, as their attitudes may instead derive from simple cue taking or a reflexive desire to alter the rules of the game under which they lost. Furthermore, a large literature suggests that citizens value procedural fairness, which should make them hesitant to support any reform that games the system too much for one side, even their own.

In my recent article in Political Behavior, I show that citizens can and do evaluate election rules based on how they impact their party’s future electoral prospects. To do so, I focus on three common reforms that directly influence how easy it is for citizens to register and vote: requiring photo identification to vote, permitting registrants to vote before Election Day (early voting), and allowing citizens to both register and vote on Election Day (Election Day registration, or EDR). Requiring photo ID to vote makes turnout more difficult by introducing an additional burden on political action (even if relatively modest for many registrants), while the other two reforms make voting more convenient by expanding opportunities to register and vote. I selected these policies because they are among those most frequently debated and implemented across states, as well as the fact that they tap into stated concerns about ensuring procedural fairness. As these reforms directly affect who can and will take part in the political process, to the extent that fairness concerns moderate a willingness to game the system in one’s favor, they should do so here.

I asked respondents in two survey experiments to report their level of support for each of these policies. In explaining the policies, I used either a generic description of the individuals affected by the reform (e.g., “some eligible voters”) or identified them as supporters of one of the two major parties. These latter conditions provided respondents with a clear understanding of the implications of adopting or rejecting the reform in question (in terms of how it would affect the participation of partisan allies or opponents). The results show that party members consistently consider their own partisan self-interest. Both Republicans and Democrats express greater support (opposition) for a reform framed as making voting easier (more difficult) for co-partisans than when that same reform is framed as doing so for their electoral opponents. In other words, citizen update their attitudes toward the rules governing how easily people can participate in the political process when informed about how those rules impact their party’s prospects at the polls.

These findings have several important implications. For one, public opinion is thought to restrict the extent to which officials can shape electoral institutions for partisan interest, but the results here suggest that this constraint may not be as strong as some claim. Despite professed concerns about institutional and procedural fairness, some citizens appear open to altering the ease of participation to improve their party’s prospects. To be fair, the changes in policy support are relatively modest in size and still often signal a high degree of support. That equity considerations do not completely mitigate the desire to obtain an electoral edge, however, raises questions about the limits to which partisans can be swayed to game the electoral system in their favor. More broadly, the results show that when provided with the necessary information, individuals choose to update their attitudes to better reflect their preferred electoral outcomes. As such, the future prospects of electoral reforms and their support among the mass public likely hinge at least in part on the extent to which they are viewed as advancing partisan interests.


Early Voting Changes and Voter Turnout: North Carolina in the 2016 General Election

Hannah L. Walker, Michael C. Herron, Daniel A. Smith


In 2013, the United States Supreme Court handed down Shelby County v. Holder. The landmark voting rights decision removed jurisdictions covered under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act from preemptive federal review. Immediately after the decision, North Carolina passed the Voter Information and Verification Act. Among other restrictions, the legislation created strict voter ID requirements, eliminated same-day voter registration, and reduced early in person (EIP) voting.

Activists challenged the law, and in the summer of 2016 a federal district court struck it down for its racially disparate impact. In the wake of the court’s decision, though, North Carolina’s County Boards of Elections responded by making various changes to EIP voting. Some counties expanded, while others contracted, the number of days, hours, and locations voters could cast ballots prior to Election Day.

In our paper, “Early Voting Changes and Voter Turnout: North Carolina in the 2016 General Election,” we examine whether changes to EIP voting affected turnout in the Tar Heel State. More importantly, we are interested if the changes impacted race and party subgroups differentially. Leveraging the natural experiment of non-uniform changes across the state’s 100 counties, we assess the impact of the changes on turnout among Black and white voters.

Existing scholarship on the topic is mixed. Reducing barriers to voting is historically associated with increased turnout, especially among marginalized voters. Yet, measures that increase the convenience of voting might simply allow habitual voters to substitute traditional Election Day voting for a more convenient method. Some scholarship goes so far as to suggest that voting early may dampen turnout because it reduces the civic significance of Election Day mobilization efforts.

Empirical strategies to isolate the impact of EIP opportunities, however, often suffer from ecological inference problems when drawing on aggregate-level data, or social desirability and sampling biases when drawing on survey data. The use of administrative voter files improves upon the former strategies, but the specter of omitted variable bias haunts this approach.

To avoid these pitfalls, we leverage the uneven changes to EIP voting made across North Carolina’s counties. Drawing on administrative voting records, we compare turnout of registered voters residing in precincts on either side of a given county border. Rather than compare individual turnout in counties increasing EIP voting to counties decreasing or not changing EIP voting, we restrict our comparisons to border dwellers. Our logic is that voters living near one another (albeit in adjoining counties) are more comparable than they are to a randomly selected voter from elsewhere in the state. We assess the validity of this assumption using census data and find that it holds reasonably well.

Conditional on race and party, we then assess the impact of changes to EIP offerings with proportional differences in voting behavior from 2012 to 2016. We compare the turnout of Black democrats to other Black democrats, white democrats to white democrats, and so forth. We do this for changes to five aspects of EIP voting: overall hours offered, evening hours, Saturday hours, Sunday hours, and number of polling locations available. Our findings are mixed. In some instances, we find that the expansion of hours is statistically associated with increased turnout. In others, we find that EIP expansion is either negatively or not all associated with turnout. In short, we find that the impact is context specific. We find no evidence that the expansion of early in-person voting had no impact on turnout, much less that it demobilized voters.

The institutional variation of EIP voting across North Carolina’s 100 counties in the 2016 election offers an opportunity to evaluate the impact of changes made to this popular form of convenience voting. We are hesitant, though, to draw broad conclusions from our analysis. To the extent that turnout among racial and party subgroups changed in 2016, we find little evidence that changes to EIP voting opportunities were a decisive causal factor, neither expanding nor suppressing the vote. Why and how voters may overcome challenges to voting presented by changes to EIP offerings remains an important point of inquiry for future research. We hope our unique research design may help other scholars interested in trying to isolate the effects of institutional change on voting behavior.