Pleasing the Principal: U.S. Influence in World Bank Policymaking

The forthcoming article “Pleasing the Principal: U.S. Influence in World Bank Policymaking” by Richard Clark and Lindsay R. Dolan is summarized by the author(s) below. 

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Do powerful countries control the behaviors of international organizations? If so, how are they able to wield their influence? These questions are central to understanding not only the role that these organizations play in world politics but also the relationship between institutions and their authorizing members, known as “principals. 

We address these questions by studying the behaviors of the World Bank. Specifically, we investigate a wonky but important practice known as policy conditionality. Borrowing countries are often required to enact domestic policy reforms in exchange for receiving loans from international institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World BankSince borrowers would generally prefer loans with no strings attached, conditions are a vital source of bargaining leverage for a lending institution. 

Given that the World Bank is widely known to be a U.S.-led institution, it is no surprise that we find that friends of the U.S. receive fewer and less stringent policy conditions (although we are the first to directly show this). What is more surprising is that the U.S. doesn’t even need to ask for these softer packages for its friends; staff just design programs that treat U.S. friends more favorably, thereby “pleasing the principal.” We substantiate this claim by quantitatively analyzing conditions attached to development policy lending between 2005-2018 and by interviewing elites who have participated in these processes. 

We propose that staff could be consciously trying to demonstrate to their largest financial backer that their work supports its interests, or they could unconsciously share the worldview of the U.S., and this guides their judgments. Either way, neither borrower countries nor the U.S. need to be especially active for U.S. interests to pervade World Bank policymaking. 

Our story contrasts with accounts of “global horse trading” at the IMF, where powerful countries and borrower countries bargain conditions for favors in a quid pro quo (Dreher, Sturm, and Vreeland 2009). These state-led dynamics are less consistent with our evidence than the staff-led explanation we propose. Overall, our findings illustrate how state power in international institutions may be deeply structural, diffuse, and indirect. 

About the Author(s): Richard Clark is a PhD Candidate, Department of Political Science, at Columbia University and Lindsay R. Dolan is an Assistant Professor, Department of Government at Wesleyan University. Their research “Pleasing the Principal: U.S. Influence in World Bank Policymaking” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

Does Economic Inequality Drive Voters’ Disagreement about Party Placement?

The forthcoming article “Does Economic Inequality Drive Voters’ Disagreement about Party Placement?” by Taishi Muraoka and Guillermo Rosas is summarized by the author(s) below. 

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Economic inequality produces a number of negative impacts on democracy. For example, inequality is associated with lower turnout, increased polarization among elites, and diminished support for political institutions. In this study, we suggest that inequality can deteriorate the quality of democracy for yet another reason: high inequality can make it more difficult for people in different economic strata to agree on the ideological (left-right) positions of political parties. 

We build our argument on class conflict theory, which suggests that people are more likely to use class identification as a meaning-making tool in highly-unequal societies. People in different strata develop beliefs and attitudes consistent with their economic status, which in turn shape not only how they see the world but also how they think the world ought to be. A straightforward, but largely ignored, implication of this theory is that class-based reasoning makes people understand the messages of parties in ways that are consistent with their own class beliefs, introducing systematically warped views about where parties stand on the ideological spectrum. These perceptual biases, we submit, become even larger in highly unequal societies. 

Our analysis is based on cross-national surveys from 113 elections in 45 countries, which comprise a diverse set of electoral democracies. We demonstrate that after controlling for individual-, party-, and system-level factors, the respondent’s economic status and the country’s level of inequality jointly predict how he or she perceives the ideological positions of political parties. Specifically, people in the top income quintile in highly unequal societies tend to show leftward perceptual biases in party positions, which means that they tend to see left-leaning parties as more extreme compared to the perceptions of people in the middle-income quintile. By contrast, people in the bottom-income quintile tend to hold rightward biases in party positions. In the aggregate, these perceptual biases add up to pronounced rich-poor disagreement on the ideological placement of political parties. 

We think that class-based disagreement on party positions has two worrisome consequences. First, it can have a noticeable effect on aggregate electoral results. Indeed, we suggest in simulation exercises that class-based misperceptions are most likely to result in declining electoral support for centrist parties. This result is consistent with the idea of a “hollowing out’’ of the center that arguably characterizes a number of contemporaneous Western democracies. Second, a more serious threat is that class-based disagreement on perceived positions may make it more difficult for governments to establish legitimacy. After all, when people in different classes cannot agree on where the government stands, they are also unlikely to agree on how well the government performs. Both of these consequences can hinder the effective operation of representative democracy. 

About the Author(s): Taishi Muraoka is a Postdoctoral Fellow, Program on US‐Japan Relations at Harvard University and Guillermo Rosas is an Associate Professor, Department of Political Science at Washington University in St. Louis. Their research “Does Economic Inequality Drive Voters’ Disagreement about Party Placement?” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science 

Literacy and State-Society Interactions in 19th Century France

The forthcoming article “Literacy and State-Society Interactions in 19th Century France” by Nan Zhang and Melissa Lee is summarized by the author(s) below. 

Literacy and State–Society Interactions in Nineteenth‐Century France

Modern states are distinguished by the breadth and depth of public regulation over private affairs. Indeed, a defining axiom of the contemporary international state system is that state institutions should provide the predominant (if not exclusive) rules and regulations governing social and economic behavior over a given territory. Many scholars therefore consider the ability to make and enforce binding rules to be central to conceptions of stateness and state capacity.

Importantly, the everyday practice of this rule-making authority is predicated upon frequent and dense encounters between the state’s administrative institutions and the population it seeks to control. In strong states today, these interactions are so common as to be banal. Historically, however, the extent to which states were able to penetrate society and interpose themselves in the individual lives of citizens varied widely within national territorial boundaries.

Our paper argues that literacy in the official language of administration facilitates those interactions by lowering linguistic and cognitive barriers in encounters between citizens and public officials. These encounters proceed more smoothly when citizens can understand and comfortably communicate with the state through the medium of official written documents. By contrast, in areas where literacy is confined to an elite minority, ordinary citizens face increased transaction costs in dealing with state institutions. At the margin, these costs may deter citizens from interacting with the state altogether, thereby weakening a crucial component of state power.

In advancing this argument, we offer a new spin on the oft-cited role of literacy in mediating the relationship between states and their citizens. A central outcome of state-sponsored schooling was to inculcate a sense of shared national identity and loyalty to the state that ultimately served to elicit greater compliance with centralized “rules of the game.” While we acknowledge the loyalty-enhancing dimensions of education, our paper focuses instead on the role of literacy in reducing the costs of communication between states and their citizens. Though mundane, the everyday communicative aspect of literacy serves as an important factor supporting the effective implementation of official rules and regulations. This channel is especially important in domains of state-society interaction where loyalty is unlikely to affect society’s acceptance of the state as a monopoly regulator of social relations.

We test our argument using rich historical data from 19th century France, a foundational case in the state- and nation-building literature. We construct a subnational panel spanning the period 1836–1896 and demonstrate that as literacy increases, so too does the frequency of state-society interactions. Importantly, we control for the effect of loyalty to the state to show that reduced transaction costs constitutes an independent mechanism linking literacy to state-society interactions.

This article contributes to the rich scholarship on state formation and state capacity. Much of this literature has fruitfully focused on explaining the origins of the state’s formal institutions. We advance this line of research by studying how formal institutions, once constructed, actually interact with the populations they purport to rule. We draw attention to the importance of state-society interactions in the development of state capacity during a period when the state sought to expand its powers beyond extraction and conscription into the realm of social regulation. Our paper’s primary contribution is to highlight the central role of transaction costs in shaping the state-society interactions that form the bedrock of state power.

About the Author(s): Nan Zhang is a Senior Research Fellow at Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods and Melissa M. Lee is an Assistant Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. Their research “Literacy and State-Society Interactions in 19th Century France” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

State Visits and Leader Survival

The forthcoming article “State Visits and Leader Survival” by Matt Malis and Alastair Smith is summarized by the author(s) below. 


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Political leaders spend substantial portions of their time traveling internationally to meet face-to-face with other leaders. Recent U.S. Presidents, for instance, have spent one-third of their days in office visiting or hosting foreign heads of state. This practice, while commonplace in contemporary politics, raises some basic questions: First, given the high opportunity cost of leaders’ time, why do leaders conduct visits themselves, rather than delegating diplomatic work to their (presumably better-informed) agents? Second, why are visits conducted in-person, despite the proliferation of technologies that would facilitate long-distance diplomatic communication? And finally, why do leaders seem to treat visits as a thing of material value, which can be proffered or withheld as part of an international exchange?

This paper seeks to resolve these puzzles, using a formal model of top-level diplomatic exchange and an empirical analysis of US presidential visits from 1960-2013. We develop a theory focused on the publicness of a visit and the information it reveals, and the impact of that information on domestic political contestation. Our model features a domestic challenger who can attempt to unseat an incumbent, but who only wants to challenge when the incumbent is weak and a challenge is likely to succeed. In anticipation of this domestic competition, a foreign power can choose whether or not to conduct a diplomatic visit with the incumbent, in exchange for some future deal or policy concession. Importantly, the foreign power faces a cost for conducting the visit, and only enjoys the benefit of the bilateral deal if the incumbent stays in office long enough to deliver. So the foreign power only visits leaders who are sufficiently strong as to make the visit worthwhile in expectation. Aware of these incentives, domestic opponents update their beliefs of the incumbent’s strength following a diplomatic visit, and are deterred from mounting a challenge against her.

The empirical analyses support the model’s predictions: a diplomatic visit with the U.S. President is associated with a dramatic reduction in the risk of being removed from office that same year. Visits have the largest effect in reducing the risk of irregular removal from office (that is, removal by extra-constitutional means), and are most consequential when they are least expected to occur (consistent with a standard logic of Bayesian updating). Further, visits are systematically reciprocated with policy concessions, in the form of closer voting alignment with the U.S. in the U.N. General Assembly and receipts of U.S. imports.

About the Author(s): Matt Malis is a PhD Student, Department of Politics at New York University and Alastair Smith is Professor, Department of Politics at New York University. Their research “State Visits and Leader Survival” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

Supply Chain Linkages and the Extended Carbon Coalition

The forthcoming article “Supply Chain Linkages and the Extended Carbon Coalition” by Jared Cory, Michael Lerner and Iain Osgood is summarized by the author(s) below. 

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Which special interest groups in the United States oppose effective action to reduce CO2 emissions and confront global climate change? In public debates, the fossil fuel industry is generally identified as having the most to lose from climate actionCertain non-fossil fuel emitters of CO2 – like the cement industry – and heavy consumers of electricity – like aluminum smelters  might also stand to loseSince the set of all industries that directly benefit from unrestricted CO2 emissions is generally thought to be small, only a relatively narrow base of directly affected industries ought to oppose proposals to mitigate climate change by putting a price or tax on carbon.  

A few examples might lead one to question this simple model. If aluminum smelters face significant costs from climate regulation due to their heavy use of electricity, wouldn’t consumers of aluminum also face higher costs from a carbon tax as the price of aluminum went up? For that matter, wouldn’t the bauxite mining industry, which depends on supplying ore to the aluminum industry, face a loss of sales if aluminum were to become more costly to make?  A similar chain of reasoning might lead you to ask whether the concrete pipe industry and the silica mining industry – major consumers and suppliers of concrete manufacturers, respectively – might come to oppose climate action due to their close links with a heavily emitting industry. 

In order to systematically test this idea, we assembled the largest-ever dataset on special interest activity around climate politics in the United States. We identified over 80 public coalitions which included US firms or trade associations with a focus on climate politics, totaling over 13000 unique members. 27 of these coalitions opposed climate action. Using these data, we found that the number of firms that have publicly opposed climate action is not small. Moreover, firms and associations opposed to climate action are drawn from a diverse set of industries, spanning all sectors of the economy. Surprisingly, the majority of opposition to climate action comes from firms and associations with no business activity whatsoever in the most heavily emitting and electricity-consuming industries.  

We then show that the opposition to climate action among these firms can be explained by their supply chain linkages to heavy CO2 emitting industries. Firms that consume the products of heavily emitting industries as inputs are much more likely to join a coalition opposing climate action than firms that don’t. Likewise, firms that sell more to heavily emitting industries are also substantially more likely to oppose climate action. These patterns explain the considerable reach of climate opposition throughout US industry.  

Why does this matter? Crafting effective policies to combat climate change requires developing successful political coalitions in support of that goal. Our research suggests that policymakers should develop political strategies with the supply chain in mind, because the economic consequences of decarbonization can spread beyond direct emitters. For example, plans to compensate firms (and their workers) for the redistributive effects of decarbonizing the economy may need to include a far wider group of stakeholders than is generally acknowledged. Understanding how supply chains create complex networks of shared interests will help in both the design and adoption of the next generation of policies to confront climate change. 

About the Author(s): Jared Cory is a PhD Candidate, Department of Political Science at University of Michigan, Michael Lerner is a PhD Candidate, Department of Political Science and Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at University of Michigan and Iain Osgood is an Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science at University of Michigan. Their research “Supply Chain Linkages and the Extended Carbon Coalition” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

Persuasive Lobbying with Allied Legislators

The forthcoming article “Persuasive Lobbying with Allied Legislators” by Emiel Awad is summarized by the author below. 

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Interest groups are often highly selective in whom they lobby to get preferred policies passed. A substantial empirical literature finds that interest groups typically lobby legislative allies. One mechanism through which these allied legislators can help is by being active intermediaries in persuading their peers. But why do interest groups not simply skip this step and directly target those who need to be convinced? One explanation is that interest groups simply lack access to those legislators who ultimately need to be persuaded. This would imply that interest groups would only go to their friends if access is too costly or simply unavailable. The second explanation, studied more in this article, ignores restrictions on access but completely relies on a legislature’s ideological composition. That is, interest groups have unrestricted access to every legislator, but may still choose to selectively lobby allied legislators. The reason is that these friendly legislators are able to put policies in a more favorable light, which biased interest groups are unable to do by themselves. 

I develop a theoretical model to further study how these intermediaries are selected and how they can be successful in increasing an interest group’s influence over policy-making. The key part of the model is an ideological disagreement among legislators over whether a policy should be implemented, as well as uncertainty about the effects of the proposed policy. After an interest group provides a report with hard evidence that convinces an intermediary to endorse the group’s preferred policy, other legislators learn that the proposal is better than initially thought. For this to work, however, the intermediary has to be moderate enough for his or her endorsement to persuade a majority of legislators. Among the legislators who are sufficiently moderate, interest groups prefer to meet with friendly legislators because they are more likely to support preferred policies. Thus, the value of a connection to a legislator increases in how similar preferences are to interest groups, but legislators are worthless if they are too similar. 

Besides exploring the mechanism of intermediary influence, there are various other implications for the role and value of intermediaries. Interest groups are not always willing to pay for access to legislators if they can directly persuade a majority of legislators without help in the lobbying process. But at the same time, access to carefully chosen intermediaries can increase an interest group’s influence over policies by not having to fully disclose all information. With interest group competition, groups are forced to meet with even more moderate intermediaries, limiting the influence an interest group would have in isolation. 

About the Author(s): Emiel Awad is a LSE Fellow, Department of Government, at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Their research “Persuasive Lobbying with Allied Legislators” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

If They Endorse It, I Can’t Trust It: How Outgroup Leader Endorsements Undercut Public Support for Civil War Peace Settlements

The forthcoming article “If They Endorse It, I Can’t Trust It: How Outgroup Leader Endorsements Undercut Public Support for Civil War Peace Settlements” by Nicholas Haas and Prabin B. Khadka is summarized by the author(s) below. 

If They Endorse It, I Can't Trust It: How Outgroup Leader Endorsements Undercut Public Support for Civil War Peace Settlements

Most of us have been accustomed to seeing photographs of formerly warring leaders smiling and holding up jointly signed peace agreements. Indeed, the world has seen a new peak in the number of conflicts, with 50 or greater every year since 2014. Unfortunately, peace settlements have failed to curb the increase in conflict, and many result in a relapse in violence; since 2015, only one peace agreement has led to conflict termination, which was in  Colombia with the FARC in 2016 (Pettersson et al. 2019). Do leader endorsements of peace agreements have their intended effect, that is, do they increase civilian support? Given the high percentage of negotiated peace settlements that fail to deliver enduring peace, and evidence that public opinion can play a key role in determining settlement success or failure, we believe that answering this question — and more generally, understanding the drivers of civilian attitudes toward peace agreements — is of great import.

To evaluate our question, we took advantage of a brief lull in the ongoing ethnic civil war in South Sudan in 2016 to conduct the first-ever endorsement study of peace policies in an active conflict setting. A large extant literature on leader endorsements in non-conflict settings indicated, somewhat intuitively, that endorsements from ethnic in-group leaders should increase support for policies and that endorsements from ethnic out-group leaders should decrease support for policies. However, as we note in the paper, the application of these studies to a conflict setting was unclear, particularly in light of a large body of evidence showing how conflict can powerfully alter individuals’ emotions and priorities.

Our experimental results provided strong support for the out-group expectation: support for real tentative peace policies dropped precipitously where they were first endorsed by ethnic out-group leaders, and effects appeared to be greatest for those from the communities targeted most violently by that out-group. More surprising, however, was our finding that ethnic in-group leaders’ endorsements did not alter individuals’ support.

How should our results be interpreted? We argue that prolonged conflict and continued failed promises to deliver peace from both sides leads individuals to doubt both in- and out-group leaders, but with differential downstream effects. Conflict leads individuals to distrust out-group leaders and value security over other concerns, and they accordingly perceive an out-group leader’s endorsement as signaling that the leader anticipates a way to exploit the policy and further target one’s ethnic group in the future. In contrast, while conflict leads individuals to doubt the competence of in-group leaders and the credibility of their endorsements, it does not lead them to view in-group leaders’ endorsements as threatening. While an out-group leader’s endorsement signals that a policy is costly, an in-group leader’s endorsement does not convey new information about the policy’s costs or benefits.

Our study indicates that leader endorsements can result in lower levels of civilian support for peace agreements. How can support be increased? Our findings suggest that efforts to build in and communicate safeguards against out-group exploitation, and to increase inter-group trust, may be promising avenues for change. We encourage future work to further investigate how leader endorsements affect peace policy support in conflict settings, and in our own follow-up study, we consider how public opinion in turn affects elite decision-making. 


Pettersson, Therese; Stina Högbladh & Magnus Öberg, 2019. Organized violence, 1989-2018 and peace agreements, Journal of Peace Research 56(4). 

About the Author(s): Nicholas Haas is a PhD Candidate, Department of Politics at New York University and Prabin B. Khadka is a PhD Candidate, Department of Politics at New York University. Their research “If They Endorse It, I Can’t Trust It: How Outgroup Leader Endorsements Undercut Public Support for Civil War Peace Settlements” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

Elite Interactions and Voters’ Perceptions of Parties’ Policy Positions

The forthcoming article “Elite Interactions and Voters’ Perceptions of Parties’ Policy Positionsby James Adams, Simon Weschle, and Christopher Wlezien is summarized by the authors below. 

Elite Interactions and Voters’ Perceptions of Parties’ Policy Positions

How do citizens learn about parties’ policy positions?  Existing studies show that citizens use factors such as election manifestos or the policies parties implement when they govern In addition, research by Fortunato and Stevenson documents that voters use cabinet participation as a heuristic to infer agreement between coalition partners.  We extend this research to assess whether citizens inferences reflect more general patterns of inter-party cooperation and conflict beyond formal coalition participation.   

The types of elite interactions we study, which include inter-party bargaining and consultations, party elites’ public statements praising or denouncing rival parties, and politicians’ interactions with non-partisan actors, are the stuff of day-to-day political news coverage.  Yet, to date no study evaluates whether media reports of these events influence parties’ policy images.  We ask the questions: All else equal – including governing coalition arrangements and parties’ policy statements in their election manifestos – do citizens infer that pairs of parties which exhibit more cooperative public relationships share greater degrees of policy agreement?  And, does the answer to this question depend on the time point in the national election cycle?   

We present results suggesting that the answer to each of the above questions is yes.  Empirically, we analyze the degree of cooperation and conflict in public relationships among political parties from 13 Western European democracies between 2001 and 2014.  Our measure is based on latent factor network models of machine-coded news stories that report tens of thousands of interactions between elites from different political parties, along with politicians’ interactions with non-partisan actors. We show that the degree of inter-party cooperation and conflict varies sharply across different pairs of parties, and that, while governing coalition partners on average have more cooperative relationships than other party pairs, there is surprising variation in the tenor of coalition partners’ relations.  We then assess whether these inter-party relationship scores predict citizens’ perceptions of parties’ Left-Right ideological positionsdrawn from surveys administered around the times of national parliamentary elections as well as at other points in the election cycle. 

We find that around the times of national elections citizens perceive more Left-Right agreement between pairs of parties that have more cooperative public relationships.  In addition, we also demonstrate that this cooperation effect is not detectible at other points in the election cycle.  Finally, the results show that citizens also apply the coalition heuristic, particularly in non-election years, when the cooperation effect is not evident. 

Our findings reflect positively on the mass public’s political capacities, as they imply that citizens roughly estimate how cooperative the relationships between different pairs of parties are, and use these estimates to infer parties’ positions.  This adds to Fortunato and Stevenson’s identification of a coalition heuristic: while citizens do indeed rely on the simple information shortcut of formal coalition arrangements, they supplement this heuristic with inferences based on more nuanced perceptions of how parties interact with each other – but only near the times of national elections.  

About the Authors: James Adams is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Davis, Simon Weschle is Assistant Professor of Political Science in the Department of Political Science and the Maxwell School of Citizenship at Syracuse University, and Christopher Wlezien is Hogg Professor of Government at the University of Texas at Austin.   Their researchElite Interactions and Voters’ Perceptions of Parties’ Policy Positionsis now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

Discursive Exit

The forthcoming article “Discursive Exit” by Laura Montanaro is summarized by the author below. 

Discursive Exit

On January 21st, 2017, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, approximately 470,000 people, mostly women, marched on Washington, and between 3.6 and 4.6 million people participated in sister marches worldwide, on seven continents. The march was widely hailed for its multigenerational and multiracial character. We now know that American participants in the march were mostly white, suburban women (Fisher, Dow and Ray 2017, Putnam and Skocpol 2018), with many women of color reportedly choosing not to participate 

They chose not to participate, not because they support Trump’s election – Edison Research exit polls showed that among women who voted, 94% of Black women and 68% of Latino women voted for Clinton, while roughly 53% of white women voted for Trump (Malone 2016) – but to resist the claims of organizers and participants calling for unity and solidarity when women of color regularly show up to defend women’s rights and issues and yet do not receive reciprocal respect or attention.  

Black women, transgender women, and disabled women, among others, used what I call ‘discursive exit: they exited an unwelcome political claim – a claim to speak for and about women that emphasised unity and solidarity while insensitive to intersectional marginalisation – marking an important refusal to belong to or remain within a group as defined by the power-wielders. They also provided reasons and explanations and called for the organizers of and participants in the Women’s March to be accountable for the power they exercised in defining the terms of the group. 

Building on Hirschman’s classic Exit, Voice, Loyalty (EVL), ‘discursive exit’ captures a distinct idea: we must be able to target effective monopolies in the domain of supposedly competitive voluntary associations. In a democracy, these kinds of monopolies will occur episodically because of organisation, issue framing and focus, and momentum. For a time, The Women’s March had a strategic or episodic monopoly on speaking for others. It claimed to speak for all women and, because of its visibility, had an effective, if temporary, monopoly on this claim. Because the mechanism of responsiveness is joining/exiting the organisation, exit is an option. But this comes at the cost of not belonging to a high-impact movement when there are no immediate or as visible alternatives. And organisations that have an effective monopoly dampen the join/exit mode of responsiveness anywayWmight voice ‘from within’ but voluntary (movement) organisation is low on internal discourse, simply because the mechanism of responsiveness is joining/exiting the organisation, and leaves participants feeling morally complicit in an unwelcome exercise of power.  

Discursive exit nudges this kind of monopoly toward better and more responsive claim-making and representation than is available in the ‘join/exit’ model of responsiveness typical of voluntary organisations 

About the Author: Laura Montanaro is Lecturer, Department of Government, University of Essex, United Kingdom. Her research “Discursive Exit” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

A Choice‐Based Measure of Issue Importance in the Electorate

The forthcoming article “A Choice-Based Measure of Issues Importance in the Electorate” by Chris Hanretty, Benjamin E. Lauderdale and Nick Vivyan is summarized by the authors below.

A Choice‐Based Measure of Issue Importance in the Electorate

A Choice‐Based Measure of Issue Importance in the Electorate

**Some issues are more important to voters than 

This is a simple idea, but measuring “issue importance” is hard. 

If you ask people what issue is most important to them, they often mention issues that they’ve read or heard lots about, not necessarily issues that are personally important to them.  These self-reports aren’t that helpful: knowing what issue a respondent *says* is most important to them often [doesn’t help us make much sense of how they *vote*]( 

Our article takes a different approach. Instead of asking survey respondents to pick important issues, we ask respondents which positions they prefer themselves and then ask them to pick between sets of issue positions, presented as fictional candidate platforms. We fielded our survey in the UK, but nothing about our method is specific to the UK except the issues and positions we use. You can see an example of the issue positions presented to respondents in Figure 1; Figure 2 shows the choice between fictional candidates. Respondents get to pick one of the two bundles, or to say that they’re not sure. 

These choices don’t show which issues were most important for specific individuals, but they do show which issues tend to influence voting most strongly overall.  If respondents tend to pick a bundle which gives them their most-preferred policy on issue X, no matter what positions the hypothetical candidates take on issues Y and Z, then we learn that issue X is more important to them than Y and Z.  The core intuition is that what we actually mean by an issue being more “important” is that changing a candidate’s positions on that issue has a greater tendency to make people choose different candidates than they otherwise would have. 

A final element of our importance measure is that, for an issue to be politically important, respondents have to feel strongly about the range of alternatives that other respondents frequently hold. Healthcare in the UK is a good example of the need to consider the distribution of opinion.  One possible position that we presented on this issue is to privatize the National Health Service and let companies charge what they want for medical care. This position has a *really strong* impact on people’s choices: very few people say they would vote for candidates who want to privatize the NHS. But this position also isn’t one which many people support. We therefore weight how much people dislike different political positions by the frequency with which those positions are held in the population. For an issue to be important as we understand it, people need to really dislike positions that many other people say they support. 

One key finding is that while obvious high profile issues like the future relationship of the UK with the EU are important by our measure, there are also issues ignored by current political contestation where the public disagrees intensely.  The death penalty has not been used in the UK since the 1960s and is rarely a subject to political debate, but if parties were to take up differing positions on this issue, our experiment suggests that it would become very contentious.  There are substantial factions among UK citizens on opposing sides of the issue and they seem to put a lot of weight on the issue in candidate comparisons.  That lack of current contestation on this issue might be good or bad — but the latent conflict is something that our method can identify which previous methods cannot.  ​ 


About the Authors: Chris Hanretty is Professor, Royal Holloway, University of London, School of Politics, International Relations and Philosophy, Benjamin E. Lauderdale is Professor, University College London, Department of Political Science and Nick Vivyanis is Professor, Durham University, School of Government and International Affairs. Their research “A Choice-Based Measure of Issues Importance in the Electorate” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.


The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.