Political Accountability and Selective Perception in the Time of COVID

Abstract: A venerable finding of political science is that people punish the incumbent president in bad times, and reward them in good times. Despite COVID-19 representing an unprecedented catastrophe, Trump’s approval ratings, unlike other world leaders, remained stable throughout 2020. To explore this puzzle, we surveyed the same Americans twice before the 2020 election – a period when COVID cases spiked. Instead of finding that the crisis’ severity affected Trump’s approval, we find the reverse – perception of the crisis depended on one’s prior political predispositions. People who already supported Trump were more likely to underestimate COVID fatalities and case-rates, and less likely to perceive the crisis as worsening over-time (daily infections doubled between interviews). Those who perceived the crisis to worsen, but continued to support Trump, expressed unwillingness to blame the President. A public so polarized that it fails to acknowledge disaster, or attribute blame, cannot hold its government accountable.

Co-authored with Sean Freeder. Manuscript available upon request.

Social Groups as the Source of Political Belief Systems: Fresh Evidence on an Old Theory

Abstract: We present novel evidence that attitudes towards social groups are responsible for structuring political belief systems. First, we show that most Americans have a rich knowledge of the social groups that support and oppose group-relevant policies (e.g., feminists and abortion). This knowledge often exceeds people’s knowledge of where Democrats and Republicans or liberals and conservatives stand on these same issues. Second, we show that when Americans do know which social groups support a policy, their attitudes towards the policy reflect their attitudes towards its supporters and opponents. Third, this knowledge promotes what Philip Converse called ideological coherence: Americans who know which groups support or oppose a policy are more likely to hold stable policy positions over time and to organize their attitudes into consistently liberal or conservative bundles. Strikingly, knowledge of social groups’ policy views rivals knowledge of parties’ positions in its ability to generate attitude stability and constraint.

Co-authored with Elizabeth Mitchell, Revise & Resubmit. Manuscript.

Before Reagan: The Development of the Partisan Divide on Abortion

Abstract: What explains the alignment of anti-abortion positions within the Republican party? I explore this development among voters, activists and elites before 1980. By 1969-1970, anti-abortion attitudes among ordinary voters correlated with conservative views on a range of non-economic issues including civil rights, Vietnam, feminism, and by 1972, with Republican presidential vote choice. These attitudes predated the parties taking divergent abortion positions. I argue that because racial conservatives and military hawks entered the Republican coalition before abortion became politically activated, issue overlap among ordinary voters incentivized Republicans to oppose abortion rights once the issue gained salience. Likewise, because pro-abortion voters generally supported civil rights, once the GOP adopted a Southern strategy this predisposed pro-choice groups to align with the Democratic party. A core argument is that pre-existing public opinion enabled activist leaders to embed the anti (pro) abortion movement in a web of conservative (liberal) causes. A key finding is that the white evangelical laity’s support for conservative abortion policies preceded the political mobilization of evangelical leaders into the pro-life movement. I contend the pro-life movement’s alignment with conservatism and the Republican party was less contingent on elite bargaining, and more rooted in the mass public, than existing scholarship suggests.

Perspectives on Politics. Manuscript.

Income Inequality and Congressional Republican Position Taking, 1913-2013

Abstract: McCarty, Poole and Rosenthal (MPR) write about the century long relationship between national income inequality and Congressional partisan polarization: rising income inequality corresponds to more polarization. I question this relationship. First, income inequality correlates more strongly with Republican positioning than with polarization, even before Republicans moved asymmetrically rightward. Second, holding the Republican position fixed, leftward movement of Congressional Democrats corresponds to decreasing inequality. Consistent with these empirical facts, I explore substantive evidence that 1) suggests a Republican centered explanation plausibly runs in either causal direction but 2) casts doubt on whether polarization driven by Democratic extremism contributes to or is fostered by rising income inequality. Given the prominence of MPR’s argument in scholarship, and the commentary on American politics it informs, this observation is central for understanding how politics shapes and responds to income inequality.

The Journal of PoliticsManuscript.

One-Party States and Legislator Extremism in the U.S. House, 1876-2012

Abstract: Do party strongholds exacerbate partisan extremism? Using over 140 years of election data and roll call votes I find that, on average, members of Congress elected in states where their party overwhelmingly dominates, tend to moderate from their national party’s ideology when compared to members elected in more competitive settings. I argue heavily one-party states have often been engendered by widespread agreement over locally salient issues, group affect, or imbalanced party organization, not because the electorate consistently agrees with one national party. Consequently, Representatives have incentive to run under the dominant party label, but must respond to diverse electoral pressures that align to both national parties. While scholars prominently observe one-partyism in the Democratic South, I observe the Plains and rural West, particularly between 1896 and 1932, can be characterized as one-party Republican, too. Perhaps surprisingly, state party strength since the 1990s, in a historical perspective, is quite balanced. 

The Journal of PoliticsManuscript