Incognizance and Perceptual Deviation: Individual and Institutional Sources of Variation in Citizens’ Perceptions of Party Placements on the Left-Right Scale

John Aldrich, Gregory S. Schober, Sandra Ley and Marco Fernandez

Electoral behavior scholars and analysts often view and interpret elections through the lens of the left-right scale. But under what conditions is the left-right scale a meaningful concept for voters?

Building on previous work by Campbell et al. (1960) and Abramson et al. (2012; 2014), we identify two ways that the meaning and utility of the scale may be degraded perhaps sufficiently to become non-meaningful for voters. The first way is if voters lack awareness or understanding of the scale, which we refer to as “incognizance.” The second way involves the deviated perceptions of party positions. As the distance between a voter’s perception of a party and the true party position grows, her/his ability to effectively use the scale diminishes. We refer to this distance as “perceptual deviation.”

Using Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES) data and multilevel models, we estimate the effects of individual-, party-, and institutional-level variables on incognizance and perceptual deviation. We find that all three levels influence whether the scale is meaningful to respondents. We also find that incognizance and perceptual deviation have important consequences for citizens’ thermometer evaluations of political parties. By including incognizance and perceptual deviation in the models, we are able to improve our estimates of the effects of key variables on party thermometer evaluations. Thus, the paper illustrates the importance of studying the variability in information for correct specification of models of judgement and choice that rely on reports of political perceptions, opinions, and beliefs.

Interestingly, our results suggest that the standard deviation of party placement is negatively and significantly associated with party thermometer evaluations. In other words, respondents penalize parties that present vague or unclear positions. This finding runs counter to prior research (Tomz and Van Houweling 2009; Somer-Topcu 2015) and contributes to an important discussion on the limits of using perceptual deviation or vagueness for political gain.


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