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Framing the Growth Debate (WP-03-09)

Dennis Chong and Yael Wolinsky-Nahmias

National polls indicate majority public support in the United States for environmental protection and controls on growth, but voters remain uncertain about the best policies to achieve these goals. Their uncertainty stems from the novelty of the growth issue and their ambivalence over the right balance to strike between conservation and development. Because most voters do not hold firm positions on these issues, the framing of policy alternatives can significantly affect their preferences.

In theory, balanced discussion can reduce or eliminate framing effects. Research suggests that political competition and debate will balance presentation of arguments and cancel out the effects of biased frames. If so, then framing effects are largely manifestations of laboratories and surveys, but not of real political campaigns. In practice, however, the theoretical conditions that reduce framing influences are often not realized in campaigns. Although framing strategies can be offset by two-sided discussion, actual campaigns often do not provide balanced debate. Elections can be one-sided affairs in which the public receives mainly one perspective on the issues. Even when campaigns are competitive, framing can still affect the distribution of preferences when the adversaries do not possess equal organizations and resources. Recent campaigns over growth-and-conservation ballot measures in Oregon, New Mexico, and Arizona are used to illustrate the factors that prevent equal debate and create the conditions for framing effects on these issues.

Dennis Chong, Political Science and Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University

Yael Wolinsky-Nahmias, Political Science, Northwestern University