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Public Opinion & Political Participation

‘Private Politics’ and Democratic Responsiveness 

Private politics occurs when citizens and activists seek policy change outside the democratic process. This often looks like boycotting companies’ products to influence market practices, such as increasing wages or paying more attention to environmental impact. The rise of private politics presents a challenge for democratic responsiveness, as legislators may lose their incentive to respond to citizens’ preferences. This happens because legislators become less relevant and receive less credit for policy change. In their article, IPR political scientist James Druckman and Julia Valdes of Lake Forest College present a survey experiment with state legislators to test this possibility. They find that a constituent email communication that references private politics decreases legislative responsiveness. This is particularly true for Republicans, who become less likely to take policy action. Moreover, reference to private politics decreases constituent engagement among both Republican and Democratic legislators. The results underline the importance of considering private politics in conversations about how democracies work. Druckman is the Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science.

How Does Partisanship Shape Voters’ Perception of the Facts?

IPR political scientist John Bullock (left) seeks advice on his research measuring the intensity of political attitudes from fellow political scientist James Druckman.

When voters respond to polls, how much do their responses reflect their true, factual beliefs, and not their partisan bias—and what are the implications for our democracy? In the Annual Review of Political Science, IPR political scientist John Bullock and his co-author attempt to find out. They review a series of studies, including one of Bullock’s own, observing that when Republican and Democratic voters are given small financial incentives to answer factual questions about issues like the state of the economy, their perspectives tend to converge. In other words, absent that incentive, survey responses might frequently reflect partisanship more than actual belief. According to Bullock, whether those gaps reflect an actual lack of information or conscious partisan “cheerleading,” it could have repercussions for political scientists, pollsters, and lawmakers themselves. When voters give inaccurate answers, Bullock categorizes the responses as either “cheerleading,” or consciously giving a false answer to bolster one’s partisan beliefs, or “congenial inference,” when in the absence of confidence in one’s knowledge, voters make assumptions that bolster their partisan beliefs. He writes that although it is difficult to identify and distinguish between the two, evidence suggests that many respondents simply don’t know the answers to factual questions about politics, relying on partisanship to guide them.


What Makes People Willing to Sacrifice Their Own Self-Interest for Another?

How do we decide who deserves our help? Why do we share resources with others? In Nature Human Behaviour, IPR political scientist Mary McGrath and Yale’s Alan Gerber show that people are more willing to sacrifice for a collaborator than for someone working just as hard but working independently. They used four online experiments to evaluate collaboration, measuring whether respondents were more likely to share bonus payments with partners in a particular task. They suggest that the effect, which is substantial, appears to exist regardless of how much effort the partner puts in. McGrath and Gerber find evidence that this collaboration effect operates by creating a sense of indebtedness to the collaborator. They point out that the collaboration effect goes beyond the context of immediate collaboration and could alter reported policy preferences for federal redistribution and welfare spending.

Do Democrats Favor Women Candidates More than Republicans? 

Mary McGrath
IPR political scientist Mary McGrath studies political behavior, using quantitative methods to investigate processes of political and economic decision-making and opinion formation.

Since the 1990s, the partisan gap between female elected officials in the United States has increased: More Democratic women win seats in state legislatures and in Congress, while the number of Republican women in office has remained stagnant. In a working paper, McGrath and Northwestern PhD student Sara Saltzer explore whether Democrats and Republicans show different biases in terms of a candidate’s gender, and if so, why. They conducted two survey experiments, asking nearly 2,500 male and female registered voters to indicate which of two candidates within their own party they would support during a primary. In the experiments, they randomized respondents into either a control condition in which candidates were indistinguishable except for their gender, or into a test condition in which the researchers reverse or reinforce stereotypes. They also randomly include information about gender equality in representation, such as the percentages of women and men in a legislative body. Their results show that, when presented with female candidates who express political values similar to their own, Republicans appear just as pro-female as Democratic voters. These findings suggest that Republican voters are not to blame for the persistently low numbers of elected Republican women. Instead, the dearth of elected female Republicans may be due to structural barriers for Republican women running for office and obstacles originating with Republican party elites.