Skip to main content

Political Communication & Issue Frames

Campaign Rhetoric and the Incumbency Advantage

James Druckman
IPR political scientist James Druckman discusses his research at the IPR@50 conference. 

Incumbent candidates hold a significant advantage during elections. A study by IPR political scientist James Druckman finds that incumbents use the election campaign to focus on their familiarity to voters and their work for their constituents, giving them an advantage over challengers. Druckman and his colleagues used the 2010 House election in the Illinois 9th District between incumbent Democrat Jan Schakowsky and challenger Republican Joel Pollak to assess the attitudes of nearly 400 voters toward incumbents. They created a website for each candidate emphasizing using either an incumbent’s strategy—highlighting the incumbent’s experience and familiarity to voters—or a challenger’s strategy—highlighting her or his policy positions and character traits, such as perceived honesty and leadership. After viewing the website, the researchers asked voters to take a survey about their perceptions of Schakowsky and Pollak and how likely they would be to vote for each candidate. They find that even when a challenger highlights his or her policy positions and traits, the incumbent has the advantage in focusing on his or her experience and familiarity, rather than policies and traits. “The campaign is a mechanism through which the incumbency advantage works,” the researchers write. They point out that factors that bias voters toward the incumbent incentivize the incumbent to only focus on those factors during an election. Druckman is the Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science.

Business, Politics, and Policy

How politically powerful is American organized business? Does its political power distort democratic representation? IPR political scientist Anthony Chen examines how these questions are answered in the academic literature but finds that the answers tend to be inconsistent and without clear consensus. Newer scholarship, however, suggests that business is “more equal” in its power than other interest groups and that the power of business undermines the quality of democratic representation. Chen argues for future studies that go beyond highly aggregated outcomes measured at a single level of the federal government such as Congress. He recommends focusing on outcomes in other branches of the federal government and in lower levels of government, as well as studies that examine the interplay between different levels and branches of government. He also encourages research into the economic interests of particular industries and studies that  permit more consistent and rigorous assessment of democratic representation. His research appears as a chapter in Can America Govern Itself? (Cambridge University Press, 2019).

How Black Lives Matter Relates to Earlier Movements for Racial Equality in the U.S.

How does the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement relate to earlier movements for social and racial equality in the United States? In a study published in Politics, Groups, and Identities, IPR political scientist Chloe Thurston examines how the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) revealed racial inequality in the housing market. She explored activism efforts such as exposure of racial segregation in African American newspaper, The Chicago Defender, followed by letter writing by the NAACP to the Federal Housing Authority. Through these efforts, the NAACP made the government’s role in institutional racism visible. In the same way, Thurston argues, the BLM activists have drawn from the NAACP’s strategy to contest police violence against Black Americans by highlighting videos from bystanders or dash-cam videos from police to expose police brutality. She also points to other works that have drawn attention to racial inequality in the U.S. criminal justice system and ways in which the government prevented Black Americans from building wealth, such as the documentary 13th by Ava Duvernay, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic article “A Case for Reparations.” In this light, BLM’s efforts to expose police brutality may draw from new technologies and strategies, but is rooted in a longer tradition whereby civil rights actors have publicized the role of the government in shaping racial inequality. Thurston writes that “understanding how groups have competed throughout history to render the state visible or to keep its role hidden is central to understanding how marginalized groups have contributed to American political development.”

The Evolution of Human Trafficking Messaging in the United States New

Tabitha Bonilla
IPR political scientist Tabitha Bonilla studies political behavior and communication and broadly examines how elite communication influences voter opinions of candidates and political policies

Human trafficking is a term used nearly synonymously with slavery, but what the general public considers to be human trafficking has been unclear. In a recent study, IPR political scientist Tabitha Bonilla and Cecilia Hyunjung Mo find that most Americans mistakenly regard human trafficking as mainly the sex trafficking of women. In reviewing more than 12,500 news articles published between 1979 and 2013 on human trafficking, they discover that the media overwhelmingly emphasized sex trafficking in their reporting on the topic, and anti-trafficking nonprofits have largely focused their attention on sex trafficking. A national online survey they conducted of over 2,000 people asking about human trafficking reveals that most believe human trafficking victims are mainly foreign women in the sex industry. According to the researchers, the best estimates show that sex trafficking is a small portion of all human trafficking, and most victims are exploited through labor trafficking in industries such as agriculture or domestic work. Bonilla and Mo explain that because people strongly link human trafficking with sex trafficking, victims who are not exploited in the sex industry are more likely to be miscategorized and not considered human trafficking victims. The researchers suggest that emphasizing the various types of human trafficking beyond sex trafficking can “increase public response to the issue.”