Selected Works and Works in Progress
"The Parties in Our Heads: Misperceptions About Party Composition and Their Consequences." With Gaurav Sood. Forthcoming. The Journal of Politics.
We document a consequential and heretofore undiscovered perceptual phenomenon in American politics and public opinion: Americans considerably overestimate the share of party-stereotypical groups in the mass-level parties. For instance, on average, people think that 32% of Democratic supporters are LGBT (6% in reality) and 38% of Republican supporters earn over $250,000 per year (2%). We experimentally demonstrate that these perceptions are genuine and party-specific, and not artifacts of expressive responding, innumeracy, or erroneous perceptions of group base rates. These misperceptions are relatively universal across partisan groups and positively associated with political interest. We experimentally document two political consequences of this perceptual bias: when provided information about the actual share of various party-stereotypical groups in the out-party, partisans come to see supporters of the out-party as less extreme and feel less socially distant from them. Thus, people’s skewed mental images of the parties appear to fuel contemporary pathologies of partisanship.
Manuscript The Hill coverage Washington Post coverage Monkey Cage (Washington Post) Vox.com coverage
"Self-Fulfilling Misperceptions of Public Polarization." 2014. The Journal of Politics.
Mass media convey deep divisions among citizens despite scant evidence for such ideological polarization. Do ordinary citizens perceive themselves to be more extreme and divided than they actually are? If so, what are the ramifications of such misperception? A representative sample from California provides evidence that voters from both sides of the state’s political divide perceive both their liberal and conservative peers’ positions as more extreme than they actually are, implying inaccurate beliefs about polarization. A second study again demonstrates this finding with an online sample and presents evidence that misperception of mass-level extremity can affect individuals’ own policy opinions. Experimental participants randomly assigned to learn the actual average policy- related predispositions of liberal and conservative Americans later report opinions that are 8-13% more moderate, on average. Thus, citizens appear to consider peers’ positions within public debate when forming their own opinions and adopt slightly more extreme positions as a consequence.
Ungated paper Syntax File Study 1 data Study 2 data
"The Delegate Paradox: Why Polarized Politicians Can Represent Citizens Best." With David E. Broockman. Forthcoming. The Journal of Politics.
Many advocate political reforms intended to resolve apparent disjunctures between politicians’ ideologically polarized policy positions and citizens’ less-polarized policy preferences. We show these apparent disjunctures can arise even when politicians represent their constituencies well, and that resolving them would likely degrade representation. These counterintuitive results arise from a paradox whereby polarized politicians can best represent constituencies comprised of citizens with idiosyncratic preferences. We document this paradox among U.S. House Members, often criticized for excessive polarization. We show that if House Members represented their constituencies’ preferences as closely as possible, they would still appear polarized. Moreover, current Members nearly always represent their constituencies better than counterfactual less-polarized Members. A series of experiments confirms that even “moderate” citizens often prefer ostensibly polarized representatives to many less-polarized alternatives.
"Do Open Primaries Improve Representation? An Experimental Test of California's 2012 Top-Two Primary." With Jack Citrin and Gabriel S. Lenz. 2016. Legislative Studies Quarterly.
Many promote open primaries, allowing voters to choose candidates from any party, to improve representation. In theory, such reforms allow voters to select more ideologically congruent candidates and potentially alleviate polarization among lawmakers, but the evidence is mixed. To determine whether voters select more proximate candidates (and thus generally more centrist candidates) under the top-two format, we conducted a statewide experiment just before California’s 2012 primary, the first conducted under such rules. We randomly assigned voters in districts with ideologically diverse fields to select candidates from either the new ballot or the one used pre-reform. We find that although voters identify as moderate and the reform had the potential to improve proximity voting, voters failed to distinguish moderate and extreme candidates. As a consequence, voters using the new ballot actually chose more ideologically distant candidates and the reform failed to improve the fortunes of moderate congressional and state senate candidates.
Ungated paper Supporting Information
"Can Your Face Win You Votes? Experimental Tests of Candidate Appearance's Influence on Electoral Choice." With Jack Citrin, Michael C. Dougal, and Gabriel S. Lenz. 2017. Political Behavior.
According to numerous studies, voters elect appearance-advantaged candidates at higher rates than their disadvantaged opponents—a finding that raises concerns about voter competence and the quality of elected officials. This worrisome finding, however, is observational, not experimental, and therefore vulnerable to alternative explanations, such as candidate effort influencing vote share and appearance ratings (e.g., through professional stylists). To determine whether this finding reflects a causal effect, we conduct two experiments. Just before elections for various offices, we randomly assigned voters to receive ballots with and without candidate photos. Simply showing voters the photos, we find, changes whom voters say they will vote for, leading them to vote disproportionately for the appearance-advantaged candidate. Since candidate effort (or other omitted variables) could not differentially influence voters in the photo conditions compared to voters in the control conditions, candidates’ looks do appear to directly influence voters, confirming concerns about voter competence.
"Irresponsible Partisanship and Democratic Accountability: How Citizens Understand Party Conflict." Working paper.
American citizens resent contemporary party conflict largely for its “process consequences.” These include incivility, gridlock, and government dysfunction. Political science generally concludes these consequences emerge for strategic reasons—that is, Democratic and Republican politicians strategically manipulate and intensify conflict to gain electoral and messaging advantages. However, recent scholarship in political psychology suggests that citizens understand party conflict emotionally—and, importantly, that they see their own party as motivated by love and the other by hate. This not only suggests that American citizens fundamentally misunderstand political conflict, but also that this asymmetric motive attribution impedes their ability to hold elites accountable for its process consequences. With data from the 2015 IGS-California Poll, I directly assess the degree to which citizens view elite party conflict as strategically- versus affectively-driven. I find citizens see both parties as significantly more motivated by strategy than emotion, especially when conflict is presented in less abstract, more policy-related terms. However, I also show that citizens generally oppose or hold zero-valence attitudes toward reforms that could potentially curb process consequences. This suggests that blindness to institutional externalities, rather than to elite strategy, sustains irresponsible partisanship.