Political Accountability and Selective Perception in the Time of COVID
Abstract: Did COVID damage Trump’s approval ratings and re-election prospects? One of the most venerable findings of political science is that people punish the incumbent president in bad times, and reward them in good times. Despite the coronavirus crisis representing a once-in-a-generation catastrophe, Trump’s approval ratings remained relatively flat throughout 2020, particularly when compared to other world leaders. What explains this puzzle? We argue that in order for the public health crisis to adversely affect Trump, people must perceive there to be a crisis in the first place. Using a two-wave panel immediately preceding the 2020 election, instead of finding that the crisis affects support for Trump, we find the reverse – the very perception of crisis depends on one’s prior political predispositions. Trump supporters are more likely to underestimate COVID fatalities and case-rates, and less likely to perceive the crisis as worsening between survey waves (even though daily infections doubled in this time frame). Those who perceived the crisis to worsen, but continued to support the President, generally expressed unwillingness to attribute the worsening crisis to the government’s response. A public unable to acknowledge disaster, or attribute its severity to the actions of elected officials, 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, Under Review. 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 Politics. Manuscript.
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 Politics. Manuscript.