Skip to main content

Public Opinion & Political Participation

Understanding the Spike in Gun Purchases During the COVID-19 Pandemic

In 2020, a record-breaking 17 million Americans purchased one or more firearms. In a working paper, IPR political scientist James Druckman and his colleagues, including former IPR graduate research assistant Matthew Lacombe, study the motivations behind this spike in gun purchases. Between April and July 2021, they surveyed 7,699 gun owners—both gun owners who purchased a gun for the first time during the pandemic and those who owned a gun before March 2020. The survey asked whether the participants or someone in their household had purchased a gun, why they purchased one, if they had experienced an economic hardship, if anyone in their household was diagnosed with COVID-19, and about demographic information, such as their racial group and party affiliation. The survey also asked whether gun owners believe in conspiracy theories, such as that Donald Trump won the 2020 election, and if they trusted institutions, such as the CDC or FDA. The researchers find that first-time gun owners were more likely to hold conspiracy beliefs and were less likely to trust government institutions than pre-existing gun owners. First-time buyers were also more likely to report they purchased a gun because of threats. The results reveal that recent gun owners are more likely to hold extreme views than pre-existing gun owners. Consequently, it could be that gun owners as a group will become more extreme than in the past. The researchers suggest that future research should consider how threatening events could change the composition of other political groups. Druckman is the Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science.

The Roots of Right-Wing Populism in the 2016 Election

Donald TrumpIn a study published in the International Journal of Political Economy, political scientist and IPR associate Benjamin Page and his colleagues explore the importance of economic factors to Trump voters and try to resolve tensions between sociologists and economists who tend to offer different explanation of Trump’s victory. Using both aggregate data and survey data from the American National Election Study (ANES), they examine the primary and general 2016 elections  and find that both racial resentment and sexism were important factors in voting for Trump, but so were economic concerns. Desires to limit imports, in particular, were important to those who voted for Obama in 2012 and switched to Trump or abstained from voting in 2016. The aggregate data on economic and social characteristics of Congressional districts show strong connections between various measures of economic distress and voting for Trump. Overall, the findings indicate that while social anxieties and resentments were important, economic factors were also central to Trump’s success. Moreover, the social and the economic were intertwined, both in Trump’s rhetoric and in the minds of many voters, especially concerning immigration. Indeed, economic distress may have been an important cause of social resentments. This research suggests that right-wing populism might be combated by focusing on progressive economic policies. Page is the Gordon Scott Fulcher Professor of Decision Making. 

High School Reduces Support for Redistribution

In the British Journal of Political Science, IPR political scientist John Bullock proposes that a high-school education may impact economic attitudes, such as supporting welfare programs. To test his hypothesis, he looks at the connections between schooling laws, educational outcomes, and economic attitudes among adults required to attend school for 8–10 years or more than 10 years between 1910–2010. Using datasets from the American National Election Studies (ANES) and the General Social Survey (GSS), Bullock examines six attitudes about redistribution: redistribution from the rich to the poor, redistribution from high-income people to low-income ones, whether the government should ensure full employment and a good standard of living, government-provided health insurance, whether the government should do everything possible to improve the standard of living of all poor Americans, and welfare. He finds that an extra year of high school makes people's redistribution attitudes 3 to 6 percentage points more conservative on all items except welfare. Thus, increasing the strictness of schooling laws has a conservative effect on economic attitudes. To explain why, he investigates how education impacts people's self-interest, meaning the factors, such as income or employment, that decrease the chance that one will benefit from redistribution. Bullock's self-interest evaluation shows that high school increases income, employment, marriage, and verbal ability, which is consistent with the claim that education reduces dependence on redistributive policies. 

The Role of Race, Religion, and Partisanship in Misinformation About COVID-19

Scientific misinformation about COVID-19 can have serious health consequences if people ignore health advice. In an IPR working paper, IPR political scientist James Druckman and his colleagues, who are part of the State of the Nation survey on attitudes about the pandemic, study which groups are most likely to be misinformed about COVID-19. The researchers conducted a national survey of 18,132 respondents from May 16 to June 1, 2020, representing the country on key demographics including gender, age, race and ethnicity, education, and U.S. region. They asked participants whether a series of statements about COVID-19 were inaccurate or accurate and then about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of ways to prevent the virus. The results reveal that minorities, highly religious people, and those with strong partisan identities–across parties–show significantly greater levels of misinformation than those with contrasting group affiliations. Notably, African Americans, who are at higher risk for contracting severe cases of coronavirus due to underlying health conditions in the population, are more misinformed about the virus compared to White Americans. Druckman and his colleagues highlight the urgency in developing targeting messages for these groups, especially high-risk populations. Further study is needed to understand the thinking process of highly religious and partisan individuals to shed light on why they are more likely to be misinformed.  Druckman is the Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science.

How Are Personal Values and Political Ideologies Connected?

Research to understand the connections between individuals’ values and their political attitudes has a long history. Some researchers have focused on the psychological profiles of those who endorse right-wing vs. left-wing ideologies. Others link personal values to political ideology. In a working paper, social psychologist and IPR associate Daniel Molden and psychology PhD student Eileen Wu ask whether the accepted associations between sets of personal values with either right- or left-wing beliefs hold true for people living in all kinds of political systems—not just those living in democracies where most research has been concentrated. To assess personal values and political ideologies, they used the 2010–14 World Value Survey, which surveyed a representative sample of over 89,000 people in 60 countries. The authors also measured the extent of democratic governance for each country. Their analysis finds that people with “conservation” values of security, conformity, and tradition are more likely to hold some kinds of right-wing political views in more democratic countries, but that this connection between values and ideology is weaker in less democratic ones. Similarly, people with “self-transcendence” values of universalism and benevolence are less likely to hold some kinds of right-wing opinions in more democratic countries, but this connection too is weaker in less democratic countries. Possible explanations include that citizens in less democratic countries have smaller exposure to political messages aimed at linking political choices to personal values and that they do not see much possibility for expressing their personal values through political choice. The research illustrates how different political environments can alter the relationship between personal values and political ideology.

Russian Media and Belief in COVID-19 Misinformation

The COVID-19 pandemic has coincided with a global “infodemic,” or an overabundance of misinformation online during a pandemic, which can have serious consequences for individuals’ health behaviors. In International Journal of Public Opinion Research, communication and policy scholar and IPR associate Erik Nisbet and IPR associate research professor Olga Kamenchuk study the relationships between news media and digital media use and holding false beliefs about COVID-19 in Russia, an authoritarian country. During the first three months of the pandemic, Russian state-controlled media promoted misinformation that downplayed the pandemic and said the COVID-19 virus originated in a Chinese or American lab, although online news, blogs, and social media offered more credible information. The researchers looked at a survey of 1,600 Russians that asked how often respondents received information from news media and digital media and about their misinformed beliefs about COVID-19. They were also asked questions to evaluate the participants’ informational learned helplessness (ILH), a concept the authors developed to describe when people experience a prolonged difficult situation that they cannot alleviate and accept it as a given. The researchers find higher rates of ILH made people more likely to endorse false beliefs about COVID-19, regardless of whether they read state-controlled or digital media. The results highlight how people who feel helpless to discern the truth may be the most vulnerable to misinformation. The researchers note that belief in misinformation about the severity of COVID-19 could sway whether Russians get vaccinated and the belief that the virus originated in a U.S. lab could sour relations between the two countries. 

What Do Americans Know About Politics?

Supreme CourtPeople seem to know more about politics when they are asked multiple-choice questions rather than “open-ended” questions that don’t allow survey-takers to select the correct answer from a list of options. In turn, scholars have argued that the use of open-ended questions has caused scholars to underestimate what the public knows about politics. In the British Journal of Political Science, Bullock and his co-author, Kelly Rader, challenge this argument. They propose that measured levels of political knowledge depend less on question type (multiple-choice or open-ended) than on the response options that accompany multiple-choice questions. The researchers explore this possibility by running an experiment about the Supreme Court with a national sample of 1,961 subjects. They asked subjects factual questions about politics—some open-ended, others multiple-choice. They also varied the number and difficulty of the response options to the multiple-choice questions. For example, difficult and incorrect response options for the chief justice’s name were names of others who had served on the Court, while the easy and incorrect response options were names of men who have never been prominent in public life. The results show that offering subjects five response options instead of three reduced estimated knowledge levels by 12 percentage points. Additionally, they show that estimated knowledge levels fell by 24 percentage points when subjects saw the difficult response options. Taken together, the effect of varying the number and difficulty of response options clearly outweighed the effect of asking multiple-choice questions rather than open-ended questions. This research has important implications for scholars’ arguments about the public’s understanding of politics: it shows that measurements of the public’s level of political knowledge depend on the form of the questions that scholars are asking.

Gender and Bureaucratic Corruption

While research exists comparing the different ways men and women govern, a related question is which gender is more corrupt when holding positions of public office. In the Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, IPR economist Silvia Vannutelli and her colleagues examine the connection between gender and bureaucratic corruption among elected officials in Italy and China. The researchers examine a dataset of Italian officials who presided over at least one procurement auction between 2000 and 2016 with the value of at least €40,000. They also analyzed a dataset of all Chinese bureaucrats who held the position of prefecture mayor or party secretary between 1979 and 2014. The researchers then compared the datasets to Italian and Chinese datasets of officials investigated for corruption. In both countries, women were less likely to be investigated for corruption compared to men. The Italian female officials were 22% less likely to be investigated for corruption and Chinese female officials were 81% less likely to have been arrested for corruption compared to male. The researchers also analyzed survey data of Italian officials collected by other researchers in 2020 to understand why women face fewer investigations and find that women followed more strict legal protocols than their male counterparts. The researchers speculate that women may face more leniency from law enforcement or that men may have more opportunities to commit corruption, but they suggest that future research investigate the gender difference further.

When Do Citizens Engage in Corruption? 

​​One in four citizens across the globe report paying a bribe in the past year to obtain public services. Yet, even in countries where corruption is prevalent, few people always give bribes. In a working paper, political scientist and IPR associate Jordan Gans-Morse and his colleagues ask what prompts citizens to bribe. The researchers conducted an experiment in Ukraine, a nation that prior to Russia’s February 2022 invasion was engaged in a longstanding struggle to root out corruption, recruiting 3,060 respondents through Facebook. They presented participants with two scenarios in which a citizen seeks a service from a public servant, one to receive a driver's license and the other to be treated at a healthcare clinic. Respondents were asked to gauge how likely these citizens would be to bribe the officials, and how likely they themselves would be to offer a bribe. Among other factors, red tape, urgency of needing public services, and access to substitute service providers influenced the decision to bribe. Additionally, citizens were much more willing to make a bribe when those around them were also participating in bribery. These findings imply that understanding more about the demand side of bribery can inform policy efforts and offer insights into the types of institutional reforms most likely to reduce corruption.

Would You Sell Your Vote?

Many in the U.S. are concerned about the state of democracy in the U.S. with increased political polarization, extremist candidates, and weakened civil liberties. In American Politics Research, political scientist and IPR associate Jordan Gans-Morse and his co-author investigate to what extent are Americans willing to sell their votes. In a nationally representative survey of 1,000 individuals conducted between Nov. 5­–6, 2016, they asked voting stickersrespondents if they would accept money from a congressional candidate for their vote. They find 12% of respondents would sell their vote for $25, nearly 20% would sell it for $100, and almost one third of respondents would accept an offer of less than $1,000. Before the Nov. 2018 elections, they conducted a similar survey asking 1,206 individuals whether they would sell their vote and how important it was to live in a democracy. Respondents who placed more value on democracy were the least willing to sell their vote and over twice as likely to refuse the vote-buying offers compared to those who ranked democracy lower. In both surveys, the results show that those with higher earnings and a strong partisan leaning were less likely to say they would sell their vote. The evidence indicates that despite the U.S.’s role as a long-standing democracy, a substantial number of Americans indicate they would sell their vote for a small amount of money. The researchers suggest that researchers and policymakers should take note of this high number when considering democratic skepticism in the U.S., and they argue that further research and data are needed to understand Americans’ attitudes about selling their vote.

The Relation Between Demographics and Gathering Socially During the Pandemic

During the COVID-19 pandemic, public health officials encouraged people to limit social gatherings to curb the spread of the coronavirus. In Nature Scientific Reports, IPR statistician Elizabeth Tipton and her colleagues explore which demographic groups are the most likely to attend social gatherings during the pandemic. They examined a dataset of 87,169 individuals from 41 countries, which accounted for 73% of the world’s population in 2020. These individuals all answered a survey between March–April 2020 asking whether the statement ”I did not attend social gatherings” described their behavior over the last week, and they indicated their age, gender, education, and household income. In a machine-learning analysis of the data, the researchers show that people who socialized were more male than female in 95% of the countries, low-income than high-income in 80%, younger than older in 78%, and lower educated than higher educated in 66%. The researchers conclude that while there are patterns among those who socialize—who are more likely to be young men with lower income and less education—public health officials should not generalize this behavior from one country to another because countries differed. For example, wealthier individuals were more prone to attend social gatherings in one-third of countries. They suggest that targeting demographic subgroups within countries could help save public health resources and make public health messages more specific to the attitudes and behaviors of each group.

The Political Consequences of Depression

Depression has increased drastically during the pandemic, and some research suggests that there is a connection between depression and violence. In an IPR working paper, IPR political scientist James Druckman and his colleagues investigate whether and how mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic influenced Americans’ attitudes about domestic extremist political violence and the January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol. The researchers interviewed 19,766 Americans from all 50 states in November 2020 after the presidential election and re-interviewed 2,044 of these participants a week after January 6, 2021. They asked respondents about whether they supported the Jan. 6 attack, their sympathy toward people who stormed the Capitol building, and their feelings about election violence in November 2020 and in January 2021. They also asked questions to understand respondents’ belief in conspiracy theories, their experiences with depression, and self-efficacy, or the belief that you have control over your environment. The researchers find that individuals suffering from moderate or severe depression who also hold conspiracy beliefs and/or have high levels of efficacy exhibit notable levels of support for violence. For example, a typical respondent who is severely depressed, efficacious, and conspiratorial had more than a 20% chance of supporting the attack on the Capitol versus a less than 1% chance for a typical respondent with none of these beliefs. The researchers argue that it is the combination of efficacy and/or belief in conspiracy theories along with the depression that determines the effect on support for political violence. Without one of those factors, depression, if anything, actually undermines support for violence. They conclude that it is essential to prioritize a policy response to address depression to mitigate support for political violence. Druckman is the Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science.

Public Opinion of Facial Recognition

Facial recognition technology is common in daily life, and the use of imaging technology is increasingly common in the healthcare system. In PLoS One, geneticist and IPR associate Sara Katsanis and her colleagues investigate how Americans feel about the use of facial recognition and imaging technology and how that might influence public trust. The researchers conducted two surveys of 4,048 diverse adults between November 24–December 14, 2020. In the first survey, 2,038 respondents completed questions focused on six different biometrics, such as imaging data and CT scan images, and the use of those images in healthcare and research settings. In the second survey, 2,010 respondents answered questions about the use of facial recognition technology in various healthcare situations. Privacy concerns were highest for use of video images (71%) and lowest for imaging-derived data (47%). The majority of respondents considered facial recognition technology acceptable to use in six of the eight scenarios. But a majority of respondents (55.5%) reported that they were worried about the privacy of medical records, DNA, and facial images collected for health research, and they were equally split between willing, unsure, and unwilling when asked if they would participate in a hypothetical study that used their facial images. The results show that while a majority of Americans trust healthcare providers with some uses of facial imaging, many are hesitant about face-based technologies. The results show that the use of facial images in healthcare and biomedical research could affect public trust in the medical system.