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Faculty Spotlight: Tabitha Bonilla

IPR social policy expert studies public opinion and the everyday consumption of politics

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We keep talking about polarization in our environment. Here’s something to pay attention to—voters are noticing the strength of a candidate’s speech, and it’s mattering in the way that they evaluate the candidates.”

Tabitha Bonilla
Assistant Professor of Human Development and Social Policy and IPR Fellow

Tabitha Bonilla
IPR fellow Tabitha Bonilla studies public opinion and how communication influences voters and policies. 

As a first-generation college student, IPR social policy expert Tabitha Bonilla thought she wanted to pursue medical research. But she found plating bacteria in the biology lab boring.

Instead, what captivated her intellectually was her research for a political science elective that focused on understanding political decision-making. Her interest in politics eventually led Bonilla to a double major and completely shift her career trajectory. “It’s definitely a nonconventional path,” Bonilla pointed out, who received bachelor’s degrees in both biology and political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

She discovered her niche research area—studying public opinion and how communication influences voters and policies—in graduate school at Stanford University. Bonilla said her interest in public opinion comes from her desire to figure out how the “everyday consumption of politics matters.”

Reframing Human Trafficking

Some of Bonilla’s recent research has focused on public opinion around human trafficking. In a study evaluating how the public views it, Bonilla and her colleague Cecilia Hyunjung Mo of the University of California, Berkeley discovered that when most people in the United States think of human trafficking, sex trafficking of foreign women primarily comes to mind. Instead, human trafficking is a domestic issue and also involves the exploitation of workers in non-sex industries.

News organizations strongly emphasized sex trafficking in their reporting on human trafficking over the past several decades, and anti-trafficking organizations focus most of their efforts on preventing sex trafficking, according to Bonilla and Mo. Bonilla explained that this is a skewed understanding of the issue because the best human trafficking data suggests that other industries such as farming, hotels, domestic work, or childcare actually have higher rates of human trafficking.

“It’s really good that we address sex trafficking,” Bonilla said. “The concern is that if we’re only looking at sex trafficking then there’s this whole other class of people who have endured something truly horrible who aren’t getting services and protections that they need.”

She suggested that one way to combat this problem is a holistic policy approach to human trafficking by creating labor laws to protect the most vulnerable, like those who are immigrants or living in poverty. The media can also play a role in changing the way the larger population understands human trafficking.

“It’s really critical to focus on the sensational aspects of it, but to also think about the everyday aspects of it,” Bonilla said. “One thing the media can do is really open up the conversation and focus not [exclusively]on sex abuse.”

Bridging the Divide 

Another of Bonilla’s studies explores the connection between immigration and human trafficking. While immigration is a highly partisan issue, human trafficking is more bipartisan, and she found that “bridging” the two issues is key to positively shifting attitudes on immigration.

Bonilla surveyed both Democrats and Republicans on the topic, asking questions that framed human trafficking as an issue linked to immigration. At the end of the survey, the questions relayed that tighter national borders can actually increase human trafficking as asylum seekers come to rely on smugglers to cross into another country. When the researchers explained this connection, Republicans were more open to less restrictive immigration policies.

“It’s not that necessarily that they like immigrants better, but they become more open to the idea of more open border policies,” Bonilla explained. “I think it’s just asking people to reconcile incompatible pieces of information.”

Making Campaign Promises

As the 2020 election approaches, one of Bonilla’s latest projects tackles the importance of political candidates’ campaign promises.

Voters recognize the difference between commitment that different policy statements convey, and Bonilla’s research shows that promises makes voters think a candidate will actually work on that issue if elected. As an example, Bonilla highlights Democratic presidential candidate former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, who has laid out clear policies he would act on immigration if elected president, in contrast to a candidate like Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who has generally been supportive of immigrants, but much less committed to specific future policy initiatives if elected.

Bonilla’s research also shows that the more voters understand how committed a candidate is to a particular issue, the more polarized their reaction to that candidate is, either in support or opposition.

“We keep talking about polarization in our environment,” Bonilla said. “Here’s something to pay attention to—voters are noticing the strength of a candidate’s speech, and it’s mattering in the way that they evaluate the candidates.”

Amidst the polarization, some might question whether current events influence what Bonilla researches. Bonilla said she’s not swayed by the constantly changing news cycle when deciding on a research project, but her background does enable her to look at the news in a different light.

“My political science background doesn’t necessarily inform what news I pay attention to, but it changes the way I think about what’s going on. I key into things that might fall under other people’s radars,” Bonilla said, noting that she tends to focus less on the actual positions of politicians, but more on their process of talking about policies and how they are trying to communicate with their constituents. “I tune into things differently.”  

Tabitha Bonilla is an assistant professor of human development and social policy and an IPR fellow. 


Published: September 24, 2019.