Archive | Public opinion

Creating More Knowledgeable Americans via Public Broadcasting

This is a guest post by Patrick O’Mahen, a fellow at at the University of Michigan’s Weiser Center.


Last week, The Monkey Cage highlighted new research by Stuart Soroka and colleagues, suggesting that watching public broadcasting increases political knowledge. In his comments, John Sides noted that the problem in the United States is that few people watch public broadcasting, limiting any practical benefits. My own research concurs with and extends both Soroka and colleagues’ conclusions and Sides’ practical criticism. Watching public broadcasting not only seems to increase political knowledge, but also reduces knowledge gaps between haves and have-nots. However, historical development of national broadcasting systems awarded first-mover advantages to public broadcasters in most European countries and commercial broadcasters in the United States. As a result, public broadcasting in our country has always faced an impossible uphill fight against established commercial networks.  But I have a modest proposal that might help.

As Soroka et al. conducted their study, I independently found that across 14 western European countries, watching public broadcasting increases correct answers to political knowledge questions by roughly 12 percent, but only in countries that subsidize public broadcasting. That both studies generated similar results at different points in time, using different data, with different countries and different methods strengthens the argument that public broadcasting increases political knowledge – although questions about correlation vs. causation remain.

But even if public broadcasting increases knowledge, this may be less salutary news if this increase is concentrated among the relatively rich, well-educated people who already are politically knowledgeable. In this case, public broadcasters would actually worsen political inequality – not a catchy slogan for an NPR pledge drive.

Fortunately, I find that watching public broadcasting reduces knowledge gaps between rich and poor people:

omahenfig1Score one for Mr. Snuffleupagus.

However, that happy result leaves the problem that Americans rarely consume public broadcasting. The good news is there is a proven way to ensure a long-term influence and a large audience of public broadcasting. The bad news is that the time to implement the solution was in 1927.

As I argue here, the initial conditions under which broadcasting systems formed in the 1920s and 1930s determined how much sway public broadcasters have nearly a century later. For example, Britain awarded a public national broadcaster a monopoly on the airwaves, which froze out commercial broadcasters from the early development of radio. With a monopoly, the public broadcaster easily dominated early development and gained a massive first-mover advantage in broadcasting.

In contrast, the United States declined the opportunity to develop a national public broadcaster and let commercial broadcasters dominate early development, although thriving non-profit and public interest sectors survived into the late 1920s. When Congress did finally move to regulate the industry under the Radio Act of 1927, the regulations sharply favored commercial broadcasters and banished public broadcasters to the dusty low-power corners of the spectrum.

Canada’s policy found a middle ground. Commercial broadcasters dominated the early development of radio. But when the government regulated the industry in the early 1930s, it moved to counter American cultural influence and to improve service of rural Canada by creating a national broadcaster. However, the commercial broadcasters had enough influence to retain their existing frequencies.

In all three countries, the early move created a self-reinforcing system. Listeners grew used to and supported the status quo. Technical expertise developed within the existing broadcasters, leaving them better able to pioneer new technology, such as television. Finally, the dominant interests in each country were able to influence government officials as they developed new broadcasting policies.

Unsurprisingly, Britain and similar countries now have the highest current audience share for public broadcasting, followed by the mixed system of Canada, which is present in Australia and Japan as well. Lagging behind are the United States and other countries with policies that initially favored commercial broadcasters:

omahentable1Despite the disadvantages that public broadcasters have faced in the United States, there may still be a way to encourage public broadcasting.  Instead of developing yet another TV channel or website, perhaps we should try the philosophy of advertisers. Create a news organization (I’ll call it NewsComm) to research and produce 30- to 90-second story blocks that can run during commercial breaks on television and as pop-up or banner ads on popular websites.

NewsComm would be funded by an endowment raised from one-time donations by charitable organizations, university systems, states, localities and individuals, matched from the proceeds of a temporary federal sales tax on televisions, computers, smart phones and other electronic devices. The organization could be run by a board of governors named in equal proportions by the federal and state governments, non-profit donors and by the journalists employed by the organization. Federal employee scales could set standards for compensation.

NewsComm seems unorthodox, but it builds on political advertising’s success in educating viewers. Colleges, states and foundations already fund public broadcasters in the United States, while a tax on electronic equipment has been used in other countries to fund their public broadcasters. The beauty of NewsComm is that the government finances are short-term levies to build an endowment, which shields taxpayers over the long term and ensures the financial independence of the organization from the government of the day and the pressures of commercial advertisers.

Let’s say for example that NewsComm was able to amass a $20 billion endowment (roughly equivalent to the United States spending half of the GDP per capita that the BBC spends annually). Spending 3 percent annually would create a budget of $150 million to spend on capital needs and employees while leaving $450 million to spend annually on advertising space – roughly the amount of a major presidential campaign.

True, it’s difficult to present in-depth stories with nuance in 30 to 90 seconds, but in an age of Twitter, these challenges already exist across all news media. They are also partially surmountable – look at the masterful short posts on places like Wonkblog or Economix in traditional media outlets.

The NewsComm method also has several advantages. First, unlike news broadcasts, NewsComm stories can be run multiple times across multiple outlets – for days if necessary. Second, because the stories would have to be produced in advance, they would have to focus on ongoing policy debates instead of chasing the latest scandals and frivolity.

Perhaps NewsComm is gimmicky. But as the fragmenting media market decreases the audience for public broadcasting, we need to find new ways to provide the knowledge that citizens need to hold elected leaders accountable. And if an advertiser can promote one ridiculous trick to cut 15 percent of your belly fat in a week, wouldn’t it be great if we could use this one ridiculous trick to boost political knowledge of citizens by 15 percent in a year?

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Americans Are Reticent About Attacking Syria — and Why That Doesn’t Matter

I think that the fact that the polls say Americans are wary in Syria does not mean all that much. If the Obama administration is able to do something that has a decisive effect, they will look like heroes. And if they look impotent in their use of military force, it will rebound against them. But the polling numbers showing American reticence, as of right now, doesn’t add up to much, because it’s really not a salient issue. It’s not enough to look at the numbers of people opposing intervention; you have to look at how much people care and at this point it isn’t very high on the list, as of today. That can change if things escalate and it starts to look like a “real” war, as opposed to Libya — which was obviously real if you were there — but from the United States the perspective was that no Americans were on the ground and no American planes were being shot down. If Syria looks like that, the pubic won’t get all that engaged. It would potentially be foreign policy success for the Obama administration, though coming awfully late, after a lot of horrible things have happened there. But if it doesn’t go well and America is gradually sucked in — throwing good resources after bad — eventually it could become a big political liability, and you could get significant public engagement. This could have happened in Afghanistan, too, if more Americans started getting killed. But it hasn’t escalated in that way.

From an interview with Matthew Baum at Journalist’s Resource.  More here.

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The Anniversary of the March on Washington, and What It Means for Public Opinion

Given the news of recent months – the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin shooting, the Supreme Court’s invalidation of part of the Voting Rights Act, and controversy over the New York City Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy – the anniversary of the March may be the unusual event that helps bring the perspectives of whites and blacks closer together.

That is Danny Hayes, over at Wonkblog.  More here.

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(Not Much) Political Polarization in Europe

A few weeks ago, in the course of describing a new article by Simon Munzert and Paul Bauer on political depolarization in Germany, Andy mentioned that the topic of polarization outside the U.S. “seems very much worth studying.” Always eager to be of service, I sat right down and wrote an APSA paper on polarization in 21 European countries over the past two decades.

The data for my study are derived from a distillation of 30 items from European Values Study surveys into broad indices of economic values and cultural values. In each domain, I consider two distinct types of polarization: societal polarization, reflected by an increase in the overall standard deviation of economic or cultural values in a given national population, and partisan polarization, reflected by an increase in the multiple correlation between party support and values.

The distinction between societal polarization and partisan polarization looms large in the scholarly literature on American party politics, since the past few decades seem to have produced a good deal of the latter but very little of the former. However, anyone used to thinking solely about the U.S. may be surprised to learn that neither form of polarization is widespread elsewhere—at least not in Europe.

The average level of social dissensus regarding cultural values in my 21 European countries increased slightly between 1990 and 2008 (from 14.0 to 14.1 on a 100-point scale), but the average level of social dissensus regarding economic values decreased slightly (from 12.1 to 11.9). Meanwhile, the multiple correlation between party support and economic values increased slightly (from .336 in 1990 to .339 in 2008), while the multiple correlation between party support and cultural values declined (from .298 to .249). Only one of the 21 countries (Bulgaria) experienced both societal polarization and partisan polarization in both the economic and cultural domains, while seven (Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Iceland, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Romania) experienced net societal and partisan depolarization in both domains.

Notwithstanding the apparent disconnect between partisan polarization and societal polarization in the U.S., European systems with greater social dissensus also tend to have higher levels of partisan sorting (that is, partisan attachments are more strongly correlated with economic and cultural values). However, partisan sorting is even more strongly related to conservatism: in the most progressive European systems (as measured by average economic and cultural values), party support tends to be strongly related to values, while conservative countries tend to have much more disorganized party systems.


One obvious virtue of the European Values Study for work of this sort is that it facilitates systematic comparison across a variety of political systems. Another, less obvious, is that the longitudinal structure of the project (with comparable survey data in each country from 1990, 1999, and 2008) provides leverage for studying dynamic interconnections between different kinds of political change. For example, my paper includes statistical analyses relating changing levels of conservatism, social dissensus and partisan sorting between 1999 and 2008 to previous changes in economic and cultural values, dissensus and partisan sorting in the 1990s. The results suggest, among other things, that systems experiencing significant partisan polarization in the 1990s experienced much more societal polarization in the 2000s, other things being equal.

If that European pattern of spill-over holds in the U.S., we may soon be experiencing substantial increases in social dissensus after all.

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Do Popular Votes on Rights Create Animosity Toward Minorities?

Continuing our new series of collaborations with political science journals, we are pleased to present the following guest post from University of Western Washington political scientist Todd Donovan to discuss his article with University of Iowa political scientist Caroline Tolbert ”Do Popular Votes on Rights Create Animosity Toward Minorities?” that appears in the current issue of Political Research Quarterly.  In conjunction with this post, SAGE will make the article freely available to all for the next 30 days; you can download it here.


Americans regularly make major decisions about minorities and minority rights via the purely majoritarian process of direct democracy.   Conflict over the substance of these policies occasionally reaches the US Supreme Court, but effects of the process of direct democracy on perceptions of minorities receive little attention.  My recent study of campaigns against same sex marriage (Minnesota Law Review), and research I’ve conducted with Caroline Tolbert published recently in Political Research Quarterly, highlight some concerns about the process.  Campaigns against a minority right appear similar to campaigns against the minority itself, as campaigns target the minority as a threat to the majority.

Voters have banned the sale of land to Asians, repealed fair housing legislation, repealed school desegregation, prohibited undocumented workers from receiving public services, and repealed public affirmative action programs. Thirty one states – including California with Prop. 8 in 2008 – voted to ban same sex marriage.  Beyond any policy effects, our study of public opinion found that the anti-marriage campaigns affected what people thought about lesbians and gays. We found animosity toward lesbian and gays increased in 2004 among religious people living in states where marriage was on the ballot.

When the constitutionality of these popularly enacted policies are challenged in court, the primary legal issues may involve how the laws are being applied, and 14th Amendment equal protection claims.  These were at issue in Romer v. Evans, when the Court overturned Colorado’s voter approved law prohibiting “special rights” for lesbians and gays.  This June, the Court largely avoided this when, in Hollingsworth v Perry, they decided that Prop. 8’s proponents lacked standing to appeal an earlier district court ruling.

Neither of these cases gave explicit consideration to effects of the process of direct democracy on a minority group.   This may change next session, when the Court considers a Michigan initiative that restricted affirmative action.  One issue in Schuette v Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action is whether the initiative changed policymaking affecting a racial minority (university admissions policy is now made via the ballot box) in a way that burdens the minority’s ability to affect the policy.  Our research suggests the effects direct democracy may go deeper – if campaigns against a pro-minority policy stigmatize public perceptions of the minority group that benefits from the policy.

Opinion polls suggest that if Prop. 8 were put before California voters today, same sex marriage would be approved.  Indeed, same sex marriage was approved by voters in Washington, Maine, and Maryland in 2012.  Given this rapid and recent change in attitudes, a campaign against same-sex marriage (and by extension, against lesbians and gays) today may not have the capacity to stigmatize as it did before.  Yet this need not mean that there isn’t potential for campaigns over other policies that benefit a minority to stigmatize public perceptions of the targeted minority group.  A July 2013 Quinnipiac poll found that nearly three-quarters of Americans felt that universities should not be allowed to use race as a factor in admissions.  A 2011 poll found most respondents agreeing that Muslims “undermine American culture.”  In the context of attitudes such as these, direct democracy campaigns may not only produce outcomes that constrain the rights and influence of minorities, but may also generate increased animosity toward the group.

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How to Explain the Seeming Gap between Public Opinion and Immigration Reforms in Congress?

Continuing our new series of collaborations with political science journals, we are pleased to present the following guest post from University of British Columbia political scientist Gyung-Ho Jeong to discuss his article “Congressional Politics of U.S. Immigration Reforms: Legislative Outcomes Under Multidimensional Negotiations” that appears in the current issue of Political Research Quarterly.  In conjunction with this post, Sage Publications will make the article freely available to all for the next 30 days; you can download it here.


According to Gallup polls, less than a quarter of the American public supports expansive immigration policies, while more than three quarters of people prefer the status quo or more restrictive policies. However, as illustrated by the past legislation (and recent debates) over the legalization of undocumented immigrants and increased level of legal immigration, immigration reforms tend to produce legislative outcomes that are not consistent with public opinion. Why?

While the conventional view explains this gap by citing the dominant role of organized pro-immigration interest groups—such as business interests and ethnic groups—in immigration policymaking, in a current article in Political Research Quarterly I present an alternative view that focuses on the nature of immigration debates in Congress.

Examining the politics of immigration reform in 1986, Artistide Zolberg observed that the conflict over immigration created “strange bedfellows” that cut across the ideological alignment of left and right. The reason is that immigration affects two different sets of concerns: economic and social/cultural. Economically, immigration affects the supply of labor, creating conflicts of interest between employers and employees. Socially, immigration affects national identity, culture, and ethnicity, pitting social liberals against social conservatives. In this article, I take this multidimensionality of immigration politics as a starting point to explain the gap between public opinion and legislative outcomes. In short, I demonstrate that the multidimensionality of immigration debates has allowed minorities of legislators to increase their influence by alternately forming coalitions with different groups. This has contributed to the seeming gap between public opinion and legislative outcomes even when legislators were not captured by pro-immigration groups.

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Political Communication and Repression in Russia – Or What Do Alexei Navalny and Mitt Romney Have in Common?

Alexei Navalny getting arrested

The following is a guest post from political scientists Graeme Robertson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Samuel Greene of King’s College London.


On Thursday  July 18, as anyone with more than a passing interest in Russia or the Monkey Cage already knows, Russian anti-corruption campaigner and Moscow Mayoral candidate, Alexei Navalny, was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment on charges of embezzling about $500 000 from a forestry firm for which he had never worked. The trial had been a long time in the works and the sentence was not surprising. Yet somehow, even if it was not surprising, it was still jarring – to us at least. That travesties of justice and political repression have become expected in Russia these days is no reason not to be horrified when they happen.

So much for the morality of the case, what about the politics? Repression, after all, is not just personal, but also political, and is intended not just to deal with a particular target, but also “pour encourager les autres”. Moreover, Navalny is no ordinary defendant, but a candidate right in the middle of a race to become mayor of Russia’s capital city – perhaps the third most high profile position in Russia after president and prime minister. The prosecutors themselves requested that the court release Navalny pending his appeal, giving him some time – maybe a month, maybe two – to campaign ahead of the September 8 ballot. So how did the political message of Navalny’s trial go down with ‘les autres’? As it happens, not much differently than a Mitt Romney ad in the U.S.—more about that in a minute.

There has been much debate about what the Navalny verdict and subsequent decision to release him pending appeal would mean for Russian politics. Fortunately, we have some data that allow informed (if clearly not definitive) analysis of these issues. The data come from two sources – daily telephone tracking polls looking at levels of support for the various candidates in the Moscow race (conducted by Synovate ComCon), and an Internet survey of educated, middle-class Muscovites that was in the field when the verdict was handed down (conducted by the authors with the generous financial support of the Smith Richardson Foundation).

The first thing to note is just how politically tuned in educated, middle class Muscovites are. In the 48 hours after the verdict (when the field work was completed), some 87 percent of respondents in our Internet sample reported being aware of the case against Navalny, and 70 percent said they knew the verdict. Interestingly, the high levels of awareness of the Navalny case do not seem exceptional – fully 89 percent of respondents said that they had head of the trials of the Bolotnoe protesters. Of these, only 15 percent thought the sentences handed down in these cases appropriate, while 53 percent saw the Bolotnoe cases as “political show trials”. In other words, the public message of repression in today’s Russia is “received and understood”.

So how is Russian repression like a Mitt Romney ad? Because the Navalny sentence produced more or less the same effect you get from launching a big television ad buy in a US presidential election – a short-lived bounce that dissipates in a week. For Navalny, being repressed by the Putin regime was worth about a 10-point bounce in the polls. In the internet survey, of the 492 respondents who answered either before the sentences were announced, or who were unaware of the verdict, 12 percent said they intended to vote for Navalny in the mayoral election. Among those who answered after and knew the verdict (151 people), Navalny’s support was 23 percent. Without a panel design, we can’t know who moved, but in aggregate all of that bounce seems to have come at the expense the incumbent and Putin-favored candidate Sergei Sobyanin, whose support fell from 34 percent to 24 percent.

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An Anxious August for Immigration Reform

This is a guest post by political scientists Bethany Albertson and Shana Kushner Gadarian.


The immigration reform bill that the Senate passed has stalled in the House. As members of Congress head home to their districts over the recess, pundits speculate about whether August 2013 will reprise the heated town halls of 2009.  The public is divided on the Senate’s bill, which included both a path to citizenship and increased border spending, with 55% of Democrats supporting it and 62% of Republicans opposed. Some proponents of immigration reform express renewed optimism, while others see reform prospects as doomed. Mark Kennedy, a former Republican member of Congress, argues that immigration will be won or lost over the August recess. In a policy area that is often surrounded by emotional rhetoric, the prospects for reform depend, in part, on the emotional tenor of the debate.  A debate that generates anxiety tends to favors opponents of comprehensive immigration reform. Anxiety about immigration leads both Democrats and Republicans to trust the Republican Party to handle immigration and to support a more restrictive immigration policy.

As part of a forthcoming book on anxiety and politics, we conducted an experiment in which we showed people an anti-immigration advertisement modeled on California Governor Pete Wilson’s 1994 advertisements. The ad highlighted three main concerns about immigration: that immigrants take American jobs, that open borders bring crime and threaten national security, and that immigrants take healthcare, education, and welfare funding from Americans. Although every person heard the same message, we varied the music and visuals. One version of the ad had threatening visuals and scary music, while the other vision had neutral visuals and no music. We expected that the threatening music and images would increase respondents’ level of anxiety, and that is what happened.

Anxious people seek reassurance, and because the Republican Party is traditionally seen as stronger on immigration, anxiety drove citizens toward Republicans. After watching the ad with the threatening music and images, both Democrats and Republicans expressed more trust in the Republican Party to handle immigration, relative to the group that saw the other ad.  Republicans also expressed less trust in both Obama and the Democratic Party.


When Americans are anxious about immigration, our research shows another consequence: that they also become more supportive of more punitive immigration policies, including making immigrants ineligible for public services as well as increased spending on border security.

What does this mean for supporters of comprehensive immigration reform?  It will not be easy to change the fact that Republicans are seen as owning the issue, nor will it be easy to prevent opponents from trying to stoke anxieties about immigrants.  Better options for supporters are to focus on the economic benefits, which could make for a less emotional debate, or to produce a different emotional narrative, perhaps one that focuses on the plight of some immigrants.  Other research shows that evoking humanitarian concerns makes people more sympathetic to immigrants—and that these concerns can even override perceptions of threat.

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Political Depolarization in Germany

Simon Munzerta and Paul Bauer have a new paper:

Public opinion polarization has decreased over the last three decades in Germany. In particular, highly educated and more politically interested people have become less polarized over time. However, polarization seems to have increased in attitudes regarding gender issues. These findings provide interesting contrasts to existing research on the American public.

Here’s what they do:

Public opinion polarization is conceptualized and measured as alignment of attitudes. Data from the German General Social Survey (1980 to 2010) comprise attitudes towards manifold issues, which are classified into several dimensions. This study estimates multilevel models that reveal general and issue- as well as dimension-specific levels and trends in attitude alignment for both the whole German population and sub-groups.

Their method follows what Delia and I did using the NES to study the well-known phenomenon of increasing political polarization in the U.S.

I don’t know much about polarization in different countries; the topic seems very much worth studying.

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Latinos View Black “Law-abidingness” Less Favorably than Whites Do

We welcome another guest post from Brown political scientist Michael Tesler.


Some commentators have questioned the role of race in the events leading up to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin because George Zimmerman’s mother is Latina—a discussion that has carried over into the comments section of this blog.  The fact that Zimmerman is part Hispanic, however, hardly immunizes him from the explicit and implicit anti-black biases that Corrine McConnaughy described in her recent post.

Indeed, the figure below suggests that Latinos are actually more likely to stereotype African-Americans as criminals than whites.  Those results, which come from a 2009 Pew Poll that interviewed a relatively large number of Hispanics (N = 376), reveal that Latinos were much less willing than whites to say “most blacks are law-abiding.“  Only 48% of Latinos, for instance, endorsed that statement compared to 76% of whites.  Moreover, the second panel of the display shows that this pessimism among Latinos was limited to their perceptions of black law-abidingness.  Three-quarters of the Latinos surveyed said that “most whites are law-abiding.”  The display also shows that African-Americans were surprisingly suspicious of their own group’s law-abidingness.  Yet, unlike whites and Latinos, African-Americans were even more likely to stereotype whites as criminals—a factor that may contribute to the wide racial divide in Americans’ reactions to the Zimmerman verdict.


(Source: Pew Social Trends—October 2009—Racial Attitudes in America II; raw data here)

A recently published article by Tessa Ditanto, Richard Lau and David Sears also suggests that anti-black attitudes may be more prevalent among Latinos than whites.  Analyzing data from the 2008 American National Election Study, which included a Latino oversample, these authors found: “In terms of negative affect toward Blacks, acceptance of Black stereotypes, and implicit prejudice, Latinos score higher than non-Hispanic Whites.“

To be sure, these results in no way imply that Zimmerman’s actions on the night of Trayvon Martin’s death were racially motivated.  They do, however, make it clear that Latinos are just as likely, if not more so, to maintain the stereotypes and implicit biases that could lead to the racial profiling of African-Americans.

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