Citizens have views on policy issues but are often ignorant about the specific stances of politicians and interest groups. How do they match their issue positions to candidates and causes and how well do their choices line up with their professed views? Cheryl Boudreau finds that low-information voters can utilize everything from party endorsements to voter guides to match their views to a candidate. But Nicholas Haas finds the policy views people articulate in surveys are not the same as how they act in the political arena. Not everyone backs up their expressed view once donation dollars are at stake.

The Niskanen Center’s Political Research Digest features up-and-coming researchers delivering fresh insights on the big trends driving American politics today. Get beyond punditry to data-driven understanding of today’s Washington with host and political scientist Matt Grossmann. Each 20-minute episode covers two new cutting-edge studies and interviews two researchers.

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Grossmann: This week on Political Research Digest: connecting issues positions to candidates and causes. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. Citizens have opinions on policy issues, and also have to make choices about which political causes to support. But how do they match their issue positions to candidates and interest groups, and how well do their choices line up with their professed views?

I talked to Cheryl Boudreau at University of California Davis about her research helping voters find the candidate that supports their views. In a new article with Christopher Elmendorf and Scott MacKenzie, Roadmaps to Representation, published in Political Behavior, Boudreau finds that low information voters can utilize everything from party endorsements to voter guides to pictures of an ideological spectrum to match their views to a candidate.

But perhaps the policy views that people articulate in surveys are not the same as how they act in the political arena. I also talked to Nicholas Haas of the New York University about his new article with Rebecca Norton, “Saying vs. Doing,” published in Public Choice. They asked citizens about their policy views, but then asked them to donate to opposing interest groups lobbying on the same issues. They found that not everyone backs up their expressed view once dollars are at stake. Political scientists often assume that voters lack knowledge and interest in non-presidential politics. But Cheryl Boudreau says they just need the information to connect their views to the candidates.

Boudreau: Conventional wisdom about voting behavior, especially in local elections like the ones we study is that voters are pretty uninterested in these elections and that they’re not capable of making informed decisions. I think that what our study shows is that voters, if you give them certain kinds of information like political party endorsements or non-partisan voter guides, that they actually can use this information and that they’re actually interested in using it.

The conventional wisdom paints a pretty dark picture about citizen competence in these kinds of low-information local elections, and what our study suggest is that voters can, in fact, be informed and are willing to be informed. It’s just a matter of getting the information to them.

Grossmann: They found that voters can make reasonable decisions based on issues, even in local elections.

Boudreau: So this is a study of voting behavior in local elections, which a lot of people have suggested are very non-ideological. That is, I do believe always think of they’re being this left/right dimension to local politics. So I looked to the army. Findings are that, without any additional information, there’s a large group of voters in local elections that can’t bring their policy views to bear on their candidate choices. That is, absent information, there are a lot of voters who can’t choose candidates whose policy views are similar to their own.

However, what our study finds is that if you can get different types of information to these voters, that they can, in fact, bring their policy views to bear in these elections. That is, they can choose candidates whose policy views are more similar to their own.

Grossmann: Both simple cues like partisanship and more substantive information like voter guides can both help voters.

Boudreau: We study two types of information in this study. We studied sort of traditional shortcuts like political party endorsements, which are also referred to as party cues. And then we studied more detailed substantive information like non-partisan voter guides, which kind of gives very detailed, substantive information about candidates’ policy views.

I think what the conventional wisdom would suggest is that these easier to use party cues, which are short-cuts, are going to outweigh the substantive information contained in the voter guide.

But we actually find that that’s not the case. First of all, both party cues and non-partisan voter guides convey important ideological information to voters about where candidates stand on policy issues. We also find that when voters are given both of them, they actually use the substantive information even when it conflicts with their own party’s recommendation. So I think that’s counter to the conventional wisdom, because I think the conventional wisdom would say “Oh, people are going to rely on these easy-to-use party endorsements which are shortcuts. They’re simpler. They take less effort to use.”

What we find is that people can actually use and are willing to use the more substantive, detailed information about candidates’ policy views.

Grossmann: They studied a supervisorial election in San Francisco where there is no partisan divide, but there is a divide over issues.

Boudreau: San Francisco has a real ideological divide between so-called progressives and so-called moderates. This is San Francisco, so everybody’s a Democrat. Or virtually everybody’s a Democrat. Almost of the candidates are Democrats. The majority of voters are Democrats. But there’s real ideological differences in this city when it comes to local issues.

So, for example, progressives and moderates disagree about what you should do about the homeless. Progressives in recent years have favored giving cash grants to the homeless in order to help them get buy, whereas moderates tend to favor services. It’s San Francisco, so of course nobody thinks we shouldn’t do anything to help the homeless, but there’s a real ideological disagreement about what exactly should be done.

Grossmann: Boudreau thinks that results would not generalize to a national partisan race. But there are quite a few races where voters lack clear partisan choices.

Boudreau: I don’t think these results tell us much about Presidential or even congressional elections where you have a Democrat running against a Republican and where Democrats and Republicans have different policy views. That’s really not what our study is about. But overall I think our results do generalize to our other big-city elections or even primary elections where you have ideological differences among elites and among voters or candidates and voters; but where you don’t have differences in partisanship.

Grossmann: Voters that got a partisan endorsement usually went along with the party, but also aligned their views with a candidate. Those who got the voter guide just aligned their views with the candidate. And those who were told where they stand relative to the candidates on a visual ideological spectrum also connected their positions to those of the candidates.

Boudreau: We find that this so-called spatial map as we call it is also quite effective at strengthening the link between voters and candidates’ policy views and that the effects are similar to the effects of the voter guide and the political party endorsements. Except unlike the political party endorsements, but like the non-partisan voter guide, there’s not this ideological shift towards one of the candidates.

Grossmann: The results were much more important for voters who did not know much about local government, because voters who already knew a lot had already connected their views to candidates.

Boudreau: We find that are, in fact, some high knowledge voters and for these voters, the information that we provided in our experiment doesn’t have much of an effect on their decisions and I think that’s because they’re already informed. They don’t need the information as much. The information probably isn’t new to them. Actually when you look at these people who score well on our knowledge battery, they’re doing pretty well, absent information. So there’s a group of voters out there who can already do it, even in a supervisorial election, which I think is pretty remarkable. So for these voters, there’s a strong relationship between their policy views and the candidates that they choose, even absent information.

Grossmann: Some voters were told both the Democratic party’s position and where they stood relative to the candidates. Surprisingly, those whose views did not match the party went along with their own views than with those of the party they supported.

Boudreau: For these voters that experience a conflict, there’s a lot of them that follow the ideological information contained in the spatial map over their party’s position. So instead of following their party’s endorsement, they tend to choose the candidate whose policy positions are closer to their own, and that this is conveyed in the spatial map.

Grossmann: Boudreau says many voters do want to make decisions based on their issue positions, but they need the information.

Boudreau: If voters have real issue positions, which they do in our contexts, and if they want to bring them to bear, which our study also suggests, it’s sort of problematic if they can’t do it. Absent information, our study suggest there’s a large group that can’t do it.

Grossmann: For political professionals, Boudreau says the results suggest they need to ask the candidates clear questions and get the information to voters.

Boudreau: So I think that one of the main challenges is first of all, figure out a way to actually get the candidates, particularly for lower-level offices that don’t have long voting records or much media coverage of their policy views, find a way to pin them down on their policy positions. Second, you need to be able to package this information for voters in a useful way.

Grossmann: But there may be a disconnect between how people think about their issue positions and how they feel about taking action in the political arena. Nicholas Haas and Rebecca Norton’s new study compares expressed views with decisions about which interest groups to support.

Haas: In most large surveys, people are asked to explain how they feel about certain issues, typically on a Likert or a scale where they’re asked “How much do you agree or disagree” with this issue. We were concerned that in this low-stake context where people can say that they hold strong views without any type of material cost associated and non-issues about which they may be uninformed. This method may not adequately capture individuals’ underlying preferences and their ideologies.

So, the goal of this study was to compare this survey method that’s so typically used with a new one where we had people decide how to divide $1.50 between two interest groups with diametrically opposed stances on the issue at hand. So we wanted to know, does asking survey questions really capture individuals’ underlying preference or ideologies?

We had three main takeaways.

The first takeaway was that asking people how they felt about issues did a pretty good job capturing their preferences. We think that’s good news. We think it’s important. The survey method is not only widely used, but it’s also less expensive to conduct than is the method that we compared it against. However, we had two main caveats.

The first one was that while we found that this survey method did a pretty good job overall, it did not do a good job at capturing everyone’s preferences. So, Democrats specifically shifted to the left under the donation method. This was particularly true for politically engaged Democrats. Further, wealthy Democrats and male Republicans moved to the right. So we did find some important differences depending on whether individuals’ preferences were elicited using survey responses or using our donation method.

Our second caveat was that we felt that some of the choices we made may have diminished potential differences between the Likert method and between our donation method. So this is something that we’re going to explore…

Grossmann: They gave people the same issue questions in a similar format, but with different tasks.

Haas: The key was to make everything as comparable as possible except for how we elicited individuals’ preferences. So to this end, we elicited the same individuals’ preferences on the same ten issues using two different methods: either the standard survey responses measured on a Likert scale, or using a donation exercise wherein individuals were forced to divide a dollar fifty in increments of twenty-five cents between interest groups with these diametrically opposed policy preferences.

We actually implemented one of each subject’s decisions and allowed them to verify that we did as we said we would. It was very important to us that they believe us.

We chose issues with three aims in mind.

  • First, we wanted disagreement along the ideological spectrum so we could capture ideological differences that existed.
  • Second, we wanted to cover multiple policy areas so not only economic or social. We wanted our definition of what made a conservative a conservative not to only be based on economic issues, but also social issues.
  • Third, we wanted our questions to be comparable to other studies on preference elicitation.

Grossmann: People were given information about the interest groups’ position and asked to split a donation between them.

Haas: Before asking subjects to split $1.50, we shared each groups’ policy stance on the issue. We took this directly from their statement so that we weren’t editorializing responses. For the analysis, what we did is we put donations, donation responses, and Likert responses on one to seven scales.

Grossmann: They expected that having real money on the line might reduce polarization, but Haas says it was more complicated.

Haas: One of the strengths of it is that it is behavior as opposed to stated preferences. We think it gets closer at revealed preferences. But the real question that we’re interested in is, “Exactly what is it, what are these survey responses telling us? Are they telling us what we think they’re telling us?” when they say they mean that there’s increased polarization. What type of polarization is there really?

Grossmann: They found interesting evidence that while active Democrats may be more extreme in their donation activity than their expressed opinions, rich Democrats, those with the money to give, gave more moderately on economic issues.

Haas: One thing we found was that wealthy Democrats were much more likely to be categorized as conservative when we used the donation method as compared with the survey response method. We thought that might be consistent with a social desirability story. The idea there is that people want to be seen as giving a certain answer. So if you’re a Democrat and you care what other Democrats think of you and you think that Democrats tend to be more generous (i.e. they tend to at least espouse policies that increase social welfare, increase size of the welfare state), you might want to be seen as being generous.

So you want to be seen as pro-redistributive and you might say that in a Likert survey response, but then when you’re actually asked to donate to a group that will increase taxes on people in your own income bracket, that maybe you actually moderate your opinion a little bit.

Grossmann: For some issues, they had more trouble aligning groups to positions.

Haas: For some issues, it was fairly straightforward as you say, so there were some issues where there are well-known interest groups that are really focused on that one issue.

A good example is guns. So, for the donation decision in the for the guns issue, we had people decide between the NRA and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. Another very clear decision was on abortion. We had them choose between them choose between Pro-Choice America and the National Right to Life Committee.

Things that were a little bit harder were issues like equal pay. Wasn’t easy to find an interest group that was only focused on being against legislation to promote equal pay. We did, for example, in this case, find some essays and the official stance of the American Enterprise Institute that indicated they would be against legislation to promote equal pay.

Grossmann: And they found bigger differences for issues without obvious groups lining up on each side.

Haas: On some issues, really, where Republicans and Democrats have drawn really clear lines in the sand, if we think about abortion or we think about guns and also where there are well known interest groups that have drawn those kinds of lines in the sand. We did not see much of a difference between the Likert and the donational elicitation methods. For example on the issue of equal pay, we saw that most Democrats and Republicans supported equal pay in the Likert elicitation, but there was much more separation in the donation elicitation.

So there are multiple interpretations of why this could be the case, but we do see the Republicans do become more polarized in the donation elicitation on equal pay. It’s definitely an issue where maybe Democrats speak more openly about how there needs to be more legislation to support equal pay, but Republicans certainly are not out there making as a key part of their platform being against equal pay. That was one area where we saw large differences in Likert vs. donational elicitation. Another area is welfare. We saw much more polarized responses in the donation elicitation than in the Likert elicitation.

Grossmann: So where do we go from here? Boudreau’s research is designed to figure out how democracy can work when people start out with such low information.

Boudreau: My broader research agenda is focused on whether voters can make decisions that are in-line with their interests. Can voters who don’t know very much about politics, who can’t name their senator, who don’t know how many members there are on the Supreme Court, who don’t know what’s going on in current events. We call on these voters to make very important decisions by electing candidates in our representative democracy, by making decisions on ballot initiatives in states with direct democracy. The question that my research is interested in is, “How can democracy work if people are so uninformed that they’re making these decisions they’re not very informed about?”

Grossmann: She says one problem might be that some voters just aren’t interested in learning more.

Boudreau: Some types of voters are going to be more interested in receiving this information than others. So I think the big open question is “How do you get voters to use this information?” I think that’s something that we’re going to pursue in future research.

Grossmann: Haas says they see at least some evidence that moderate interest groups might be able to generate support or that people might want to see groups fighting on both sides.

Haas: We do think there’s hope, even if we’re looking at a very polarized reality. Our measures under both methods did suggest that there’s high polarization. One thing we did not consider in the paper that we do in another project is, in what cases people would prefer centrist interest groups to interest groups either on the left or on the right. So in this case, they just had to decide between one on the left and one on the right. But maybe there are more opportunities for moderates than we’ve identified in this study when we do include a third option.

Then also, we do think that there’s some suggestive evidence that some partisan groups that may appear to be highly polarized in survey responses…but perhaps there are opportunities actually for centrist groups to appeal to them. For example, this finding that wealthy Democrats moved to the right under the donational elicitation method as compared with the Likert method.

We think maybe that signals that centrist groups could appeal to them.

Grossmann: Boudreau is optimistic. She says voters just need to be given the right information to make their views actionable.

Boudreau: Voter ignorance is a solvable problem. There’s decades of research that have lamented how little citizens know about politics. But what I think this study and my broader research agenda suggests is that there are solutions that are out there that can work. There are groups that are interested in coming up with these solutions. What my research studying the effects of these kinds of information suggests is that they can be quite effective, even among people who don’t really know much about politics.

Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. Political Research Digest is available bi-weekly from the Niskanen Center and on iTunes. I am your host, Matt Grossmann. Thanks to Cheryl Boudreau and Nicholas Haas for joining me. Join us next time to find out how the Tea Party laid the groundwork for the rise of Donald Trump.