Gaurav Sood and Yphtach Lelkes
The news media have been disrupted. Broadcasting has given way to narrowcasting, editorial control to control by “friends” and personalization algorithms, and a few reputable producers to millions with shallower reputations. Today, not only is there a much broader variety of news, but there is also more of it. The news is also always on. And it is available almost everywhere. The search costs have come crashing down, so much so that much of the world’s information is at our fingertips. Google anything and the chances are that there will be multiple pages of relevant results.
Such a dramatic expansion of choice and access is generally considered a Pareto improvement. But the worry is that we have fashioned defeat from the bounty by choosing badly. The expansion in choice is blamed for both, increasing the “knowledge gap,” the gap between how much the politically interested and politically disinterested know about politics, and increasing partisan polarization. We reconsider the evidence for the claims. The claim about media’s role in rising knowledge gaps does not need explaining because knowledge gaps are not increasing. For polarization, the story is nuanced. Whatever evidence exists suggests that the effect is modest, but measuring long-term effects of a rapidly changing media landscape is hard and may explain the results.
As we also find, even describing trends in basic explanatory variables is hard. Current measures are beset with five broad problems. The first is conceptual errors. For instance, people frequently equate preference for information from partisan sources with a preference for congenial information. Second, survey measures of news consumption are heavily biased. Third, behavioral survey experimental measures are unreliable and inapt for learning how much information of a particular kind people consume in their real lives. Fourth, measures based on passive observation of behavior only capture a small (likely biased) set of the total information consumed by people. Fifth, content is often coded crudely—broad judgments are made about coarse units, eliding over important variation.
These measurement issues impede our ability to answer the extent to which people choose badly and the attendant consequences of such. Improving measures will do much to advance our ability to answer important questions.
Sally Friedman and Richard K. Scotch
Persons with disabilities make up a large and significant segment of the American public; however, Americans with disabilities have rarely been considered an important political constituency or received public (or scholarly) attention in terms of their representation among political candidates or office holders. To the extent that people with disabilities have been addressed in American political discourse, they have been associated with the receipt of public benefits and services instead of being thought of as people with the potential to actively participate. Having a physical or mental impairment has typically carried with it a considerable degree of social stigma, and to be disabled is, in the minds of many, to be incapable and incompetent, dependent on others, and even morally questionable. Thus, for much of American history, the perception of an individual as disabled has been inconsistent with the personal qualities that the voting public and political gatekeepers view as desirable for public officials.
While there have always been politicians with disabilities in government, many of them have chosen to hide or minimize the visibility and extent of their impairments. However, cultural changes in part provoked by the disability rights movement have meant that many impairments have become less discrediting, and that people with disabilities are more likely to be seen as having the potential to be contributing citizens. The number of political candidates and officeholders with disabilities appears to be increasing, and some have chosen to include or even highlight their disabling condition as they present themselves to their constituents.
An expansive body of research known as racial priming consistently shows that media and campaign content can make racial attitudes more important factors in Americans’ political evaluations. Despite the well-established racial priming findings, though, there are some lingering questions about this line of research that have not been adequately settled by the extant literature. Perhaps the most frequently debated issue involves the effectiveness of implicit and explicit racial appeals. Can explicit appeals that directly invoke race and/or racial stereotypes, for example, effectively activate racial attitudes in white Americans’ political opinions? Or do racial appeals have to be implicit in nature, making only coded references to race in order to prime racially conservative support for political candidates and public policies? Along with this important topic, there are additional questions raised by the existing racial priming research, which include: Who is most susceptible to racial priming? Are political attacks on other minority groups, such as Muslims and Latinos, as potent as the appeals to anti-black stereotypes and resentments upon which the racial priming research is based? How did Obama’s presidency, which both heightened the salience of race in political discourse and increased the importance of racial attitudes in Americans’ partisan preferences, affect the media’s ability to prime race-based considerations in mass political evaluations?
Four potential mechanisms explore the linkages between partian media outlets and attitudinal polarization, as well as discusses how such outlets cause polarization and influence American politics more generally: partisan media outlets can have direct effects on their audience, indirect effects on the broader population, effects on the news media, and effects on political elites. Some challenges and questions remain to be answered in each area in the hopes of spurring more, and broader, work on these media institutions.
Michael J. Nelson and James L. Gibson
Even though most judges in the United States stand for election in the context of strong normative objections to the practice of electing judges, political scientists have produced a surprisingly thin theoretical framework for understanding how judicial campaigns affect voters. This paucity of research is particularly surprising given the increasingly politicized environment in which judicial elections operate. The literature on judicial campaigns is well-served to draw upon the well-trodden research about campaign effects for executive and legislative office. In some important respects, however, judicial contests differ from those for executive or legislative office. To this end, the Expectancy Theory pioneered by James L. Gibson provides an important theoretical development, emphasizing that the effects of judicial campaigns are highly conditional upon variation in voters’ willingness to tolerate different types of campaign activity. Moreover, the effects of campaigns are highly dependent on the context of both institutional design and voters’ own experiences with judicial elections.
Matthew P. Motta and Erika Franklin Fowler
Political advertising, especially negative advertising, is a prominent feature of contemporary political campaigns in the United States. Campaigns use advertising strategically to persuade citizens their candidate is preferable to the alternatives; to mobilize like-minded supporters to get out to the polls to cast a ballot for their candidate; and to acquire citizen-personal information, so they can more effectively target individuals with appropriate persuasive or mobilizing messages. Online advertising is growing, but television advertising volume has largely been on the rise, too, with 2014 being a plateau. Evidence about trends in advertising content and effects of advertising on citizens come from television advertising in particular.
Over the past decade, candidates have consistently sponsored a majority of advertising on the airwaves although their share does appear to be declining in legislative races. Interest group sponsorship of political advertising has grown, especially in Senate and presidential races, taking advantage of recent legal changes in the campaign finance landscape. Negativity is the dominant form of television advertising, constituting more than 65% and as much as 75% of all congressional general election ads (and as much as 87% of presidential ads) on air since 2006. Parties and interest group sponsors are more likely to air negative advertising by candidates, but candidates do not refrain from going negative. In fact, candidate negativity comprises roughly half of all negative ads on air. Negative ads are more likely to cite specific sources and therefore are generally considered more substantive. TV advertising is unlikely to contain partisan or ideological cues, in part, because it is targeted at swing voters.
Early studies of advertising cast doubt on their effectiveness, but more recent work suggests that advertising effects are small (mattering at the margin in the most competitive contests) and often conditional. That is, advertising effects often vary in relation to characteristics of the messages being aired, the individuals who view them, and contextual factors relating to the campaign more generally. Scholarship suggests that advertising has persuasive but short-lived influence on citizens and that advertising volume and negativity may aid mobilization efforts (although the influence of negativity may be conditioned upon ad characteristics and timing).
Technological advances in the way TV advertising is deployed is increasing campaigns ability to target citizens in a fashion similar to online advertising, which has implications for how well researchers can continue to study it. Scholars have made considerable progress in studying 21st-century advertising effects, but a number of logistical hurdles and unanswered research questions remain.
Kevin Arceneaux and Martin Johnson
Students of public opinion tend to focus on how exposure to political media, such as news coverage and political advertisements, influences the political choices that people make. However, the expansion of news and entertainment choices on television and via the Internet makes the decisions that people make about what to consume from various media outlets a political choice in its own right. While the current day hyperchoice media landscape opens new avenues of research, it also complicates how we should approach, conduct, and interpret this research. More choices means greater ability to choose media content based on one’s political preferences, exacerbating the severity of selection bias and endogeneity inherent in observational studies. Traditional randomized experiments offer compelling ways to obviate these challenges to making valid causal inferences, but at the cost of minimizing the role that agency plays in how people make media choices.
Resent research modifies the traditional experimental design for studying media effects in ways that incorporate agency over media content. These modifications require researchers to consider different trade-offs when choosing among different design features, creating both advantages and disadvantages. Nonetheless, this emerging line of research offers a fresh perspective on how people’s media choices shapes their reaction to media content and political decisions.
Elizabeth Ann Stein
Considering incidents that make headline news internationally, given the modern information and communication technology revolution, the facility of citizens to rapidly mobilize represents a considerable threat to autocratic survival. While the speed with which popular movements emerge has increased exponentially, and the news of their existence spreads faster and farther, civil unrest has threatened the stability and survival of dictators for centuries. The paranoia and machinations of dictators depicted in films, such as the portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, while sensationalized, capture the astounding array of threats with which unelected leaders must concern themselves. On the one hand, they must worry about insider threats to their standing, such as conspiratorial plots from people within the dictator’s own circle or mutiny among government soldiers. On the other hand, dictators also must monitor threats originating from non-regime actors, such as new alliances forming among once-fragmented opposition groups or the possibility of sustained insurgency or a popular revolution. From force to finesse, autocratic leaders have developed a broad and evolving range of tactics and tools to diminish both internal and external domestic threats to their reign. The success of dictators’ endeavors to insulate their regimes from forces that might challenge them depends on accurate and reliable information, a resource that can be as valuable to the leader as would a large armory and loyal soldiers. Dictators invest significant resources (monetary as well as human capital) to try to gather useful information about their existing and potential opponents, while also trying to control and shape information emitted by the regime before it reaches the public. New information and communication technologies (ICTs), which have drawn a great deal of scholarly attention since the beginning of the 21st century—present both risks and rewards for dictators; inversely they also create new opportunities and hazards for citizens who might utilize them to mobilize people opposed to the regime. While civil unrest could encompass the full range of domestic, nonmilitary actors, there also needs to be a specific focus on various forms of mass mobilization. Historically, more dictators have been forced from office by elite-initiated overthrows via coups d’état than have fallen to revolution or fled amid street protests. Civil unrest, in its many forms, can affect autocratic survival or precipitate regime breakdown. While mass-based revolutions have been a relatively rare phenomenon to date, the actions of many 21st-century dictators indicate that they increasingly concern themselves with the threats posed by popular protests and fear its potential for triggering broader antigovernment campaigns. The ease of access to information (or the lack thereof) help explain interactions between authoritarian regimes and citizens emphasizes. The role of information in popular antigovernment mobilization has evolved and changed how dictators gather and utilize information to prevent or counter civil unrest that might jeopardize their own survival as well as that of the regime.
Going public is the preeminent governing strategy of modern presidents. When presidents go public, they attempt to influence the decisions, actions, and opinions of others through speechmaking and other public engagement. Although some scholars of the rhetorical presidency show how presidents have used speeches to govern since the dawn of American democracy, the bulk of scholarship centers on the modern presidency, as both advances in communications technologies and changes in federal policymaking institutions spurred presidents to go public.
Going public as a leadership strategy involves a variety of presidential speeches designed to reach a range of institutions and actors. Strategies include going local, speaking on national television, or saturating news coverage by sustaining attention to a top priority. The president’s target audience can be Congress, the public, news media, or bureaucracy. Presidents have had some success going public, although the ways in which presidents have been successful vary by strategy and target audience.
Going public is more than just presidential leadership of others. It is also about what incentivizes the president’s efforts to use speeches to govern in the first place. Thus, a second focus of research on going public is what explains speechmaking and the tendency of presidents to respond to those institutions and actors that they also attempt to lead. The majority of existing research centers on presidential leadership of, and responsiveness to, mass public opinion, but the emergence of a more polarized public may influence why presidents go public and may change what political scientists conclude concerning going public and presidential leadership in a more polarized political age.
Conor M. Dowling and Yanna Krupnikov
Since the 1960s there has been an increase in the amount of negative advertising in American campaigns. Although only 10% of advertisements aired in the 1960 campaign were negative, in the 2012 campaign only 14.3% of aired ads were positive. The increase in negative advertising has raised questions about the effects these types of ads may have on the electoral outcomes and the political process at large. Indeed, many voters and political actors have assumed and argued that negative advertising will have negative consequences for American politics. Although many news consumers and people interested in politics make many assumptions about the role of negativity in politics, the effect of campaign negativity on the political process is ambiguous. If there is a relationship between negativity and political outcomes, this relationship is nuanced and conditional. Although negativity may, under certain conditions, have powerful effects on political outcomes, under other conditions the effects of negativity are minimal. Moreover, while there is some research to suggest that this type of campaigning can produce negative consequences, other research suggests that negativity may—at times—be beneficial for the political process.