When Issue Salience Affects Adjudication: Evidence from Swiss Asylum Appeal Decisions

The forthcoming article “When Issue Salience Affects Adjudication: Evidence from Swiss Asylum Appeal Decisions” by Judith Spirig is summarized by the author below. 

Issues surrounding refugee migration have been featuring everywhere from parliamentary agendas, to media coverage and public debates. An extensive literature shows that the salience of an issue affects voters’ political attitudes and electoral behavior, perhaps particularly so when it comes to immigration. Do these findings extend to the behavior of judges?

Imagine the following scenario: two people from the same country of origin appeal the dismissal of their asylum requests. Both get assigned the same chair judge to handle their respective appeal and receive their decision at a similar point in time. If one person’s appeal is handled when newspapers generally report more on refugee issues than when the other person’s appeal is handled, is her appeal less likely to be granted?

There are several reasons why we could think that issue salience would not affect judicial decision making. The principle of “equality before the law” is enshrined in many constitutions and research shows that the attitudes of elites with more expertise and experience are more stable. Yet, existing work on judicial decision making has documented that, in many ways, judges’ decisions are shaped by similar factors as the political behavior of regular citizens.

This paper argues that we should expect issue salience to affect judging if there is clear correspondence between a salient, politicized issue and the legal issue to be decided. In the specific case of asylum decisions, issue salience reduces the asylum appeal grant rate, because the perception of and media coverage about asylum issues is largely problem-centered.

To test this argument, I leverage the universe of asylum appeal decisions from the Swiss Federal Administrative Court and the volume of media coverage on asylum and refugee issues in Switzerland between 2007 and 2015. I find that higher issue salience leads judges to decide otherwise similar asylum appeals less favorably. When average daily issue salience increases by one standard deviation (+ approx. 9 newspaper articles), an appeal’s probability of success decreases by about 3-6 percentage points. Additional analyses suggest that this effect is unlikely to bedriven by accountability pressures, as there is no evidence that judges are responding to incentives created by the judicial retention system or timing their decision sin response to issue salience. Furthermore, an automated text analysis of newspaper articles reveals that the salience effects are larger when newspapers report more on asylum topics that are in line with concerns documented to drive public anti-immigrant sentiment.

How generalizable are these findings? I contend that while the issue salience effect might be particularly pronounced in the case of Swiss asylum appeal decisions, it is likely also present in other Western countries and other, similarly politicized, issue areas. Beyond advancing our theoretical understanding of the role of extra-legal factors in judging, this study emphasizes that inconsistency in judging arises not only from disparities between judges, but also from disparities between decisions of the same judge sat different points in time.

About the Author: Judith Spirig is Lecturer, Department of Political Science at University College London. Her research “When Issue Salience Affects Adjudication: Evidence from Swiss Asylum Appeal Decisions” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

Ascriptive Characteristics and Perceptions of Impropriety in the Rule of Law: Race, Gender, and Public Assessments of Whether Judges Can Be Impartial

The forthcoming article “Ascriptive Characteristics and Perceptions of Impropriety in the Rule of Law: Race, Gender, and Public Assessments of Whether Judges Can Be Impartial” by Yoshikuni Ono and Michael A. Zilis is summarized by the author(s) below. 

Perceptions of procedural fairness influence the legitimacy of the law, and because procedures are mutable, reforming them can buttress support for the rule of law. Yet legal authorities have recently faced a distinct challenge: accusations of impropriety based on their ascriptive characteristics (e.g., gender, ethnicity). That is, Americans may question the impartiality of the judiciary based on attributes of judges that cannot be changed. It is worth remembering that, in 2016, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump criticized a Hispanic judge, claiming that the judge would not be able to give a fair ruling on a suit involving Trump University due to his ethnic background. What is the publics view of whether judges are impartial in light of ascriptive characteristics such as a judge’s gender and ethnicity? 

In order to understand how the attributes of judges affect perceptions of judicial impartiality in the context of the U.S. legal system, we conducted two survey experiments with around 3,000 U.S. adults each. We first conducted an experiment in which we manipulated the names of the judges appearing in a news article and asked them to evaluate the fairness of the judge. Our results revealed that assessments of a judge’s fairness depended on their perceived race/ethnicity and genderFigure 1 below shows how respondents assess the fairness of female (black square dots) and Hispanic judges (grey triangle dots)It demonstrates that Democrats, compared with Republicans, tend to perceive less bias among Hispanics and women. 

Figure 1 Perceptions of Impropriety Based on Innate Traits 

The squares and triangles in the figure represent estimates of the extent to which respondents believe there is bias in the judgments of women and Hispanic judges, respectively, and the straight lines represent confidence intervals at the 95% level. 

Next, we conducted a conjoint experiment in which respondents read aarticle about a pending court case and then asked to rate the fairness of judges who might be assigned to the case. Crucially, we randomized multiple aspects of judges’ profiles, including race/ethnicity and gender. As the results shown in Figure 2 below demonstrateDemocrats believe that female (compared to males) judges and Hispanic (compared to white) judges exhibit less bias. The exact opposite is true among Republicans. Republicans perceive more bias on the part of female and Hispanic judges. 

Figure 2. Pooled Conjoint Results Predicting Judge Bias 

The dots in the figure indicate the extent to which each attribute influences respondents’ judgments about whether a judge is impartial, with positive values indicating a strong degree of unfairness. 

Overall, our findings show that despite the progress they have achieved, female and Hispanic judges face remaining hurdles. Equally notable is the fact that ascriptive traits contribute further to partisan polarization in support for U.S. judges. This pattern is concerning because it goes beyond mere ideology, demonstrating that citizens believe that judges may be biased as a result of their race/ethnicity and gender alone. As women and minorities make up a larger share of the bench, our results imply that partisans diverge in whether these judges can rule with impartiality. 

About the Author(s): Yoshikuni Ono is Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics at Waseda University and Michael A. Zilis is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science at University of Kentucky. Their research “Ascriptive Characteristics and Perceptions of Impropriety in the Rule of Law: Race, Gender, and Public Assessments of Whether Judges Can Be Impartial” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

Decentralization Can Increase Cooperation among Public Officials

The forthcoming article “Decentralization Can Increase Cooperation among Public Officials” by Adriana Molina‐Garzón, Tara Grillos, Alan Zarychta and Krister P. Andersson is summarized by the author(s) below. 

Decentralization has been highly debated over the years. Millions of dollars and hours of work have been dedicated to the implementation of decentralization, its improvement, and better understanding its effects. However, many unanswered questions remain, especially related to social dynamics among public officials and bureaucrats who are in charge of delivering public services. We often forget that institutional reforms also create governance challenges among the people involved. Since these individuals have considerable discretion in how they serve clients, their preferences and behaviors can influence the effectiveness of governance reforms. With this in mind, we study the effects of decentralization on cooperation among public officials at multiple levels of state and local government in the Honduran health sector.  

We offer a deeper understanding of what happens when institutional reforms are implemented and potential tensions between individual and group interests arise throughout the system; from health center staff, to managing organizations and their state-level regulators. The main dilemma: actors could achieve better collective outcomes in the public sector by cooperating with one another, but individuals may choose to shirk or freeride, especially where their efforts are not easily monitored. (Monitoring is difficult within the hierarchical structure of how health services are delivered to local communities).   

We study cooperation among public officials in the setting of a prominent health sector decentralization reform in Honduras. We conducted public goods games with systematic sample of public officials and bureaucrats working at regional, municipal, and local levels of the health system. Within the game, individuals had the opportunity to cooperate by contributing to a common good (a health solidarity fund in this case) or to keep the money for themselves. This structured activity helped reveal participants willingness to cooperate with one another and also allowed them to reflect on their daily work experiences – two main reasons why it is now common to use this approach as a tool to study behavior. We conducted these public good games in two settings: decentralized municipalities and a matched set of centrally-administered municipalities. We also used surveys about connections between participants to better understand relational dynamics within the health system 

Our evidence shows that public officials in decentralized municipalities do cooperate more and have a higher frequency of strong connections to their colleagues across levels of government than public officials in centrallyadministered health systemsThis implies that decentralization affects the dynamic between the various civil servants who are in charge of delivering public services. In particular, it can create a setting that both incentivizes creating more ties across the service delivery hierarchy and promotes cooperation across levels. While we recognize that decentralization can and sometimes does have negative effects on important outcomes at the local level, we believe that studying these relational dynamics among those who provide public services is also fundamental to better understand the mechanisms and conditions under which decentralization may improve public services. 

About the Author(s): Adriana Molina‐Garzón is PhD Candidate, Department of Political Science at University of Colorado Boulder, Tara Grillos is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science at Purdue University, Alan Zarychta is Assistant Professor, Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice at University of Chicago and Krister P. Andersson is Professor of Political Science, Institute of Behavioral Science at University of Colorado Boulder. Their research “Decentralization Can Increase Cooperation among Public Officials” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

Able and Mostly Willing: An Empirical Anatomy of Information’s Effect on Voter‐Driven Accountability in Senegal

The forthcoming article “Able and Mostly Willing: An Empirical Anatomy of Information’s Effect on Voter‐Driven Accountability in Senegal” by Abhit Bhandari, Horacio Larreguy and John Marshall is summarized by the author(s) below. 

Electing competent and hard-working politicians is a pillar of democratic governance. It is often hoped that informing voters about their politicians’ performance may help citizens to select high-quality politicians and hold underperforming ones to accountAcademic research has made strides toward causally linking political information and accountability, though the evidence to date remains mixed. On one hand, the recent Metaketa initiative—which coordinated experimental projects in six countries to address this very question—found that making indicators of incumbent performance available to voters had little effect on their beliefs or vote choices. On the other, information’s pro-accountability effects are clearest in studies of broadcast, print, and social media.  

Given the complexity of the theoretical chain linking political information to voter-driven accountability, it is hard to know where the logic of accountability breaks down. Could limited effects be due to difficulties in disseminating information to voters? To voters’ inability or disinterest in processing information? To the lack of relevance of the information to voters? Or perhaps even to voters’ unwillingness to hold politicians to account?  

Furthermore, existing research has focused predominantly on electoral accountability – that is to say whether votes are cast against incumbent politicians that failed to meet expectations and for incumbents that exceeded them. However, citizen interactions with politicians once in office may be just as important, especially in the Global South where interactions with representatives often extend only to the months of an election campaign. Such contact represents a valuable opportunity to communicate an individual’s or community’s information, preferences, and requests to politicians.  

We designed a randomized field experiment around Senegal’s 2017 parliamentary elections to dissect the chain that connects the receipt of incumbent performance information to two forms of accountability: choices at the ballot box and requests of politicians after the electionPartnering with a Senegalese civil society association, we implemented the project across 450 villages in five rural Senegalese districts – places where information about legislators’ performance is otherwise hard to come by. Compounded by Senegal’s party-dominated system where citizens typically vote based on party rather than candidate in parliamentary elections, the low-information environment presented an opportunity to assess whether voters are willing and able to hold politicians to account based on information they receive. 

Over the month preceding the electionnine voters aged 20-38 per village could receive leaflets containing information about MP responsibilities, incumbents’ activity in parliament and local development policy outcomes, and/or information comparing the performance of the current incumbent to the previous one in a given district. To focus on how voters respond to such information upon receiving it, rather than whether the information reached or was in engaged with by voters, enumerators spent up to five minutes explaining the leaflet in person. Via baseline, endline, and follow-up surveys, we measured whether (and when) information impacted voter evaluations of the incumbentefforts to contact politicians, and actual votes in the community. 

Our varied treatment conditions, factorial experimental designs, and extensive measurement of citizen beliefs and behaviors enable us to anatomize the process through which information influences voter-driven accountability. Absent the dissemination challenges that may have affected previous studies, our study is able to examine which types of information voters care about, whether they internalize this information, and how – if at all – they use this information to hold their politicians to account.  

We find that rural Senegalese voters processed performance information in a sophisticated manner vis-à-vis their prior expectations, cared primarily about performance related to local development, and found information that compared their current incumbents with previous incumbents to be most informative. Their more positive evaluations of the best-performing incumbents endured for at least a month after treatmentIn contrast, providing information about legislator duties had little effect on voters’ beliefs or accountability-seeking behavior, suggesting that voters are well aware of politician responsibilities to bring resources back to their community.  

The information campaign also affected electoral and non-electoral efforts to hold incumbents to account. Voters durably requested greater contact with the best-performing politician after the election, and votes for such incumbents increased among likely-voters and the voters who prioritized local projects. In the often tight-knit communities that we studied, disseminating leaflets to nine younger voters was even sufficient to influence polling station level voting outcomes  

Upon receiving information, we conclude that voters are able and mostly willing to use information to hold politicians accountable. When the information provided to them is relevant, voters—even in rural settings characterized by limited access to education and information as well as low levels of political competition, where researchers might have least expected to have observed our resultsseek to hold politicians to account.  

By showing that accountability does not break down with voters in such contexts, which are all too common in the Global South, our findings shift the onus to improve accountability back to governments, donors, and civil society organizations. Such institutions may require more powerful incentives or greater capacity to disseminate accurate and relevant information that reaches a largely receptive electorate. Furthermore, our findings suggest a need for accessible fora through which enthused voters can communicate with their representatives.  

About the Author(s): Abhit Bhandari is Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse at University of Toulouse Capitole, Horacio Larreguy is Associate Professor, Government Department at Harvard University and John Marshall is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science at Columbia University. Their research “Able and Mostly Willing: An Empirical Anatomy of Information’s Effect on Voter‐Driven Accountability in Senegal” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

Presidential Approval and the Inherited Economy

The forthcoming article “Presidential Approval and the Inherited Economy” by Michael W. Sances is summarized by the author below. 

Who is responsible for the economy when a new leader takes office? While it might seem implausible that first-year presidents have any control over the current economy, I find voters behave as if they do. Analyzing hundreds of polls from the Carter through Obama presidencies, I find voters associate their rating of the economy with their rating of the president’s job performance, even in the president’s first year. Generally speaking, economic ratings and presidential approval begin to be associated about six months into a president’s term – long before the typical president has a chance to enact a budget or other meaningful economic policy. 
Whether they escape responsibility in year one, questions of timing follow leaders throughout their terms and into the next election cycle. In the 2012 election, Republican Mitt Romney argued Barack Obama should, after four years, be held accountable for the still-recovering economy. The idea that longer-serving presidents are more responsible for the economy is intuitive – but again fails to track with how voters behave. In fact, after a slight increase in a president’s second year, I find the economy-approval relationship does not change at all for the remainder of a president’s term. Thus, despite having eight years to enact economic policy, a president at the end of her second term is just as accountable for the economy as a president in her second year. 
Of course, it is possible that subjective ratings of the economy are reflections, not causes, of how voters feel about the president. This is a longstanding concern in the research on presidential approval, and I take several steps to address it in my paper. The main way I do so is with a survey experiment where I leverage the varying tenure of state governors in early 2019. At this time, many states had governors who had just taken office, while others had governors who had been in office several years, so I surveyed voters in all 50 states about their rating of the state economy and of their governor’s performance. 
On this survey, I randomly informed some voters that experts believed their state economy was performing well, while telling others experts thought their state economy was performing poorly. This prime, which by design is unrelated to voters’ pre-existing ratings of their governors, successfully influenced perceptions of the state economy, which in turn influenced governor job approval. Crucially, however, the effect of the prime was evident even for governors who took office weeks earlier, and was no stronger for governors who had been in office for years. 
Previous work has raised concerns that elections cause presidents to focus their effort on improving the election-year economy, rather than the economy throughout their term. My results, while seemingly counter to intuitions about presidential influence, lessen these concerns. If they wish to remain popular – and thus have a chance passing policies, adding to their party’s seats in Congress and the states, and ultimately be re-elected – presidents ignore the non-election year economy at their peril. 

About the Author: Michael W. Sances is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science at Temple University. His research “Presidential Approval and the Inherited Economy” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

Political Determinants of Economic Exchange: Evidence from a Business Experiment in Senegal

The forthcoming article “Political Determinants of Economic Exchange: Evidence from a Business Experiment in Senegal” by Abhit Bhandari is summarized by the author below. 

In much of the world, who one knows can make a critical difference in the private sector. Where institutional access is difficult and rule of law selectively enforced, the advantages of political connections are especially pronounced. Among other benefits, knowing the right people in power can make it easier to enforce deals against partners who have broken contracts, or make it easier to break contracts without fear of retribution. 

Scholars tend to focus on the value of political connections. But there could be a downside: given that the politically connected can break deals with relative impunity, people may resist doing business with politically connected firms. And within this context of valuable political connections, state institutions like formal, written contracts may be susceptible to similar biases. I advance a theory in this paper arguing that political connections suppress everyday exchange and that formal contracts disproportionately protect the politically powerful. 

It has been difficult to causally test these arguments in the past. Most available data only records exchanges that have already occurred or firms that already exist. But if political connections can indeed prevent exchanges from occurring where they otherwise might, relying on such data could mischaracterize the true impact of political connections and contracts on exchange. 

To estimate this causal impact, I implemented a field experiment in Senegal in which I created and operated a registered business that sold mobile phone credits to households. I formed partnerships with three municipal councils in Dakar, and hired a team of employees who then worked at these councils in order to develop their political connections. Then, during door-to-door transactions, I randomized whether employees signaled their political connections as well as whether they offered formal contracts as part of the deal. This strategy allowed me to observe the conditions under which buyers exchange, and, critically, when they do not. 

The results show that, on average, political connections suppressed exchange and formal contracts boosted exchange. The effects of formal contracts are particularly large, an encouraging yet somewhat surprising result given Senegal’s weak contracting environment. However, examining the results by buyers’ political connections shows that it was primarily politically connected buyers who increased their likelihood of exchange when formal contracts were part of the deal. Imbalances in the political connections of buyers and sellers similarly affected who did business with whom: while sellers’ political connections decreased the likelihood of purchase among connected buyers, they had no effect among unconnected buyers who purchased at lower rates in general. 

Overall, these results show that everyday political connections can impede daily types of trade. This paper thus demonstrates the importance of measuring individual-level political connectivity for understanding patterns of economic development when the rule of law is selectively enforced. 

These results also demonstrate the limits of state institutions for enforcing secure exchange. Though formal contracts increase confidence in exchange, when rule of law is selectively enforced, these benefits may only accrue to those who need it the least: politically connected parties. Increasing access to formal contracts absent structural reforms may thus unintentionally exacerbate existing inequality and segmentation. 

This study was among the first to create a legal business to test a core question in the political economy literature, a strategy which offers unprecedented control to researchers. Assuming ethical standards can be met, this approach could be refined and adapted to other contexts to test lingering causal questions in the study of business and politics. 

About the Author: Abhit Bhandari, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at University of Toulouse Capitole. Their research “Political Determinants of Economic Exchange: Evidence from a Business Experiment in Senegal” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

Do Campaign Contribution Limits Curb the Influence of Money in Politics?

The forthcoming article “Do Campaign Contribution Limits Curb the Influence of Money in Politics?” by Saad Gulzar, Miguel R. Rueda and Nelson A. Ruiz is summarized by the author(s) below. 

The influence of money in politics has been a cause for concern across the world. Over 40% of countries have adopted laws limiting campaign contributions and, in many of them, curbing the influence of money in politics was one of the main motivations for such reformsWe evaluate the efficacy of this institution in a new paper. 

We study this question in Colombia, where the story of the mayor of Amalfi exemplifies the broad patterns we see in the dataBefore the election, one donor alone contributed 3000 dollars, equivalent to 22% of the total contributions to the mayor’s campaignWhen the mayor won the election, the donor signed 86 contracts with the municipality worth more than half a million dollars. Of these contracts, only five were awarded via competitive tender. Can campaign contribution limits reduce the benefits accrued by donors? 

Considering the case of mayors systematically, we first establish that donating to political candidates carries kickbacks. With a regression discontinuity design, we show that donors of mayoral candidates who barely win an election are more likely to receive a public contract after the election than those donors who contributed to a candidate who barely lost the election. Donors to a winning candidate receive, on average, three more contracts from the elected mayor than those received by donors of the runner-up. This is a large increase, representing 184% of the average number of contracts that donors to the two top candidates receive.  

In Colombia, campaign contribution limits change discontinuously at certain thresholds related to the number of registered voters such that moving from a municipality just under the threshold to one just above loosens campaign contribution restrictions on the total amount from approximately 17,000 to 32,000 U.S. dollarsUsing a regression discontinuity design, we show that looser campaign limits (those that allow more money in politics) concentrate the influence of donors by raising the average contribution per donor and by increasing the share of campaign contributions that come from top donors. In particular, the share of a top donor’s contributions in campaign revenues is 9.1 percentage points higher in looser limit municipalities than in those with more restrictive campaign finance regulations. Next, we find that the increased weight of donors in the winner’s campaign under looser campaign limits translates into larger benefits to donors via contracts: a donor to the winning candidate receives three more public contracts than those she would have received under more restrictive campaign contribution rules. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we establish that this outsized influence of money in politics brought by looser campaign finance regulations is affecting the execution of public contracts. We show that looser limits increase the value of costs overruns of contracts managed by donors by 214% 

Overall, looser campaign contribution limits increase the weight top donors contributions have in winning campaigns’ revenues, the benefits via contracts that donors to the election winner receive, and the costs society pays for such contracts. This evidence is consistent with campaign contribution limits curbing the influence of money in politics. 

About the Author(s): Saad Gulzar is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science at Stanford University, Miguel R. Rueda is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science at Emory University and Nelson A. Ruiz is Lecturer, Department of Politics and International Relations at University of Oxford. Their research “Do Campaign Contribution Limits Curb the Influence of Money in Politics?” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

Adaptive Experimental Design: Prospects and Applications in Political Science

The forthcoming article “Adaptive Experimental Design: Prospects and Applications in Political Science” by Molly Offer-Westort, Alexander Coppock and Donald P. Green is summarized by the author(s) below. 

In his 1980 essay for the American Statistician, We Need Both Exploratory and Confirmatory, John Tukey asserts that the advancement of science requires both exploratory and confirmatory data analysis to develop a research program from an idea, to a question, to a design, to (hopefully) an answer. Tukey framed these approaches as complementary; we propose that by combining modern machine learning tools with trusted methods for experimental design and analysis, we can integrate confirmatory and exploratory analysis in a coherent, principled way.  

Indeed, we already combine exploratory and confirmatory analysis systematically in the social sciences, albeit often informally. When a researcher runs a pilot that tests multiple versions of a treatment intervention and then implements only the most effective version in the main trial, this is integrating exploratory and confirmatory analysis.  

In this paper, we provide an introduction for political scientists to adaptive experimental designs, widely used in industry settings, which facilitate a principled approach to selecting among alternative interventions. These designs use a class of algorithm termed multi-armed bandits to dynamically allocate greater assignment probabilities to the most promising interventions. (We note that “best” is determined by the researcher’s objectives, and may be formalized in different ways.)  

We highlight the conditions under which such designs outperform conventional static experimental designs. In general, when there is a version of treatment that is clearly the most effective, the algorithm will quickly increase allocation to that arm, facilitating more precise estimation of outcomes under that intervention. This precision, however, comes at the cost of decreasing allocation to suboptimal treatment, resulting in less precise estimation for those arms. On the other hand, if no treatment clearly outperforms the others within the duration of the experiment, we may lose efficiency as the algorithm equivocates across multiple candidates for the “best” treatment.  

We demonstrate the design and analysis of an adaptive experiment in a practical application, determining and evaluating the most effective ballot measures for two policies: an increase to the minimum wage and a right-to- work law.  

While social scientists may care about learning and evaluating the best version of treatment, they often care as much or more about comparison of this treatment with a control condition. We propose a novel adaptive algorithm specifically tailored to this goal, which allocates an increasing proportion of subjects to both the best arm and the control condition, improving the precision with which we estimate the average treatment effect of the best performing arm.  

We apply this control-augmented algorithm to a study on misperceptions of facts, learning which interventions are most effective at inducing survey respondents to provide correct answers to factual questions about economic conditions.  

Adaptive designs impose increased complexity on study implementation and analysis, as compared to their conventional static counterparts. However, we demonstrate that they may also reward researchers with considerable payoffs. They are as well of great relevance in the spheres of public policy and health, where researchers may have ethical obligations to minimize subject exposure to ineffective, or even harmful interventions. 

About the Author(s): Molly Offer‐Westort is a post‐doctoral fellow at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Alexander Coppock is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale University and Donald P. Green is the J. W. Burgess Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. Their research “Adaptive Experimental Design: Prospects and Applications in Political Science” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

How Political Parties Shape Public Opinion in the Real World

The forthcoming article “How Political Parties Shape Public Opinion in the Real World” by Rune Slothuus and Martin Bisgaard is summarized by the author(s) below. 

After the storm on the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on January 6, 2021, President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. noted, “At their best, the words of a president can inspire. At their worst, they can incite.” The question of how powerful political parties and their leaders are in shaping public opinion has intrigued political scientists since the beginning of systematic empirical research. Yet one obstacle has continued to get in the way of finding systematic answers: In the real world, political parties rarely change their position or messaging on major political issues – and when they do, researchers usually arrive too late to identify any effects on opinion. 

In our article, “How Political Parties Shape Public Opinion in the Real World,” we present some of the most direct evidence to date of how citizens respond when their party changes its position in the real world on issues with direct concern to citizens’ welfare. We thus focus on party elite influence on citizens’ policy opinions. Moving beyond the sterile experimental setting used by most extant work, wrely on a rare quasi-experimental panel study of how citizens responded when their political party suddenly reversed its position on two major and salient welfare issues in Denmark. With a fivewave panel survey collected just around these two events, we show that citizens’ policy opinions changed immediately and substantially when their party  switched its policy position – even when the new position went against citizens’ previously held views. 

Specifically, we fielded a five-wave panel survey in the aftermath of the Great Recession in Denmark 2010-11, hoping that parties would announce dramatic changes in their position on specific welfare policies. Fortunately for our study, major political parties, including that of the Prime Minister, announced two wide-reaching policy reforms that came as a surprise to political observers: a 50 percent reduction in a widely used unemployment insurance program and, later, the abolition of a popular early retirement program. Hence, in both cases, the stakes were salient and real. 

We tracked opinions on the exact policies in question, enabling us to gauge what people thought about the cutbacks before and after their party proposed them. Furthermore, our panel survey closely bracketed the two policy changes – in one instance with less than two months passing from the pre- to the post-wave – limiting the influence of alternative, co-occurring events. On both issues, we find that citizens’ policy opinions immediately moved by around 15 percentage points in response to their partys new issue position compared to similar citizens whose party did not change its position. 

Importantly, the marked opinion change was not only driven by citizens already (partly) supportive of welfare cutbacks. To the contrary, parties were successful in reversing opinions among their supporters, moving them from opposing cutting down welfare to supporting it. The magnitude of opinion change among citizens is remarkable because it is on par with or even larger than many experimental studies, despite such studies are conducted in clean environments with captive audiences and typically on much less salient policy issues. 

In short, our findings suggest that partisan leaders can indeed lead citizens opinions in the real world, even in situations where the stakes were real and the economic consequences tangible. 

As we discuss in the article, our findings contribute to understanding the magnitude, duration, homogeneity and underlying psychological processes of party cue effects on citizens’ opinion formation. For example, the large and durable party cue effects in our real-world study suggest that experimental studies might, in fact, tend to underestimate the influence of political parties on public opinion. Likewise, our findings of few and small differences within partisan groups in how citizens responded to parties’ changing policy positions might lead researchers to be more cautious in concluding how heterogeneously citizens respond to party signals. This result, indeed, is further support of our interpretation that partisan elites exert a substantial influence on their supporters. 

Like our other recent article in American Journal of Political Science, “Partisan Elites as Culprits? How Party Cues Shape Partisan Perceptual Gaps,” this study offers an empirical foundation for normative debates about party elite influence on citizens. Our empirical evidence that party elites, at least under some conditions, have the power to directly shape how citizens form political opinions and even interpret the facts at hand leaves partisan elites with a responsibility to administer their influence carefully. 

About the Author(s): Rune Slothuus is Professor in the Department of Political Science at Aarhus University and Martin Bisgaard is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Aarhus University. Their research “How Political Parties Shape Public Opinion in the Real World is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

The Unequal Distribution of Opportunity: A National Audit Study of Bureaucratic Discrimination in Primary School Access

The forthcoming article “The Unequal Distribution of Opportunity: A National Audit Study of Bureaucratic Discrimination in Primary School Access” by Asmus Leth Olsen, Jonas Høgh Kyhse‐Andersen and Donald Moynihan is summarized by the author(s) below. 

We hope that public officials will treat us fairly, offering equal access to public services whatever our background. Whether bureaucrats meet such ideals in practice is another question. The discretion inherent in their jobs gives them the opportunity to discriminate across groups. We offer evidence that school officials in Denmark are likely to engage in such discrimination: they are less likely to offer positions in schools to families with a Muslim name less frequently than to their Danish peers.  

To understand patterns of bureaucratic discrimination we distinguish between two approaches: allocative exclusion and administrative burdens. Allocative exclusion refers to bureaucrats systematically providing some resources to some groups more than others. We test if officials engage in discrimination via allocative exclusion by offering school places to families with a Muslim name less frequently than to their Danish peers. We therefore examine actual decisions to allocate public resources, not just responses to requests for information.  

Second, bureaucrats can apply more indirect forms of discrimination, by imposing administrative burdens differentially across groups. Administrators might decline to share information with, be less welcoming toward, or demand more documentation from out-groups. The applicant might not receive a direct rejection, and still participate in the bureaucratic process, but under less favorable circumstances. We examine if bureaucrats impose greater compliance and psychological costs on Muslim families.  

We undertook a national field experiment where putative Muslim and Danish families sent an email requesting to transfer their child to a local school (n=1,698)School transfers requests are common in a Danish context. We examine access to primary education because it matters profoundly for later-life outcomes and is central to cultivating the civic skills needed for citizenship. Muslims in Europe often play a double out-group role, differentiated in both religion and ethnicity from predominantly Christian or non-religious natives. Muslim immigrants perform poorly in Danish elementary schools, contributing to later life socio-economic disparities. Furthermore, the risk of anti-Muslim bias has been exacerbated by the refugee crisis, which has encouraged anti-immigrant politics across Europe. 

The large differences in responses we find – 25% of those with Danish names were directly offered a spot at the school, compared to 15% of those with Muslim names – provides unambiguous evidence of discrimination via allocative exclusion. We also find that Danish bureaucrats discriminate in how they impose administrative burdens, seeking more information and offering a less welcoming tone to Muslims.   

About the Author(s): Asmus Leth Olsen is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at University of Copenhagen, Jonas Høgh Kyhse-Andersen is an independent researcher, and Donald P. Moynihan is a Professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. Their research “The Unequal Distribution of Opportunity: A National Audit Study of Bureaucratic Discrimination in Primary School Access” 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.