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Tabitha Bonilla

Assistant Professor of Human Development and Social Policy

PhD, Political Science, Stanford University, 2015

Tabitha Bonilla studies political behavior and communication and broadly examines how elite communication influences voter opinions of candidates and political policies. In particular, her work focuses on how messaging polarizes attitudes or can bridge attitudinal divides with substantive focuses on important topics in American politics ranging from gun control to human trafficking and immigration. Her work incorporates a range of quantitative methods including experiments and text analysis.  

Bonilla earned her PhD in political science in 2015 from Stanford University. She then worked as a postdoctoral scholar and teaching fellow in the political science department at the University of Southern California through 2016.

Current Research

Campaign Promises as Signals of Candidate Commitment. Existing empirical work tells us that campaign promises are important for voter decision-making. Studies on campaign promises tell us that candidates make increasing numbers of promises to constituents, but the American public does not necessarily believe that candidates will follow through on their promises. This project asks what incentive candidates have to continue to make campaign promises, and theorizes that promises increase the perceived commitment that the candidate makes to her position, and subsequently affects voter evaluations of candidates by changing expectations of candidate follow through and character. Experiments, measuring the prospective and retrospective effects of promises on candidate evaluations, indicate that promises polarize voter opinions of a candidate.  While promises attract like-minded voters, they repel voters with different perspectives. Promising  also comes at a cost to assessments of a candidate's character which results in an asymmetry between the gains and losses made from promising, and ultimately allows candidates to strategically employ promises.

Issue Appeals Versus Group-Based Appeals. Discussions of election strategies in the United States often revolve around which party can attract specific demographic groups, and what the parties can offer those groups. A prominent example of this discourse is the Republican National Committee’s report on the 2012 election, which focused specifically on how the party can better attract African-Americans, Latinos, and women in order to win subsequent elections. This project investigates the efficacy of how parties appeal specifically to African-American and Latino voters through two survey experiments. By making group-based appeals, candidates induce a negative effect in vote choice for in-group members. In both experiments, respondents generally prefer candidates when the candidates’ appeals indicate a demonstrated commitment to issues affecting that community. And, even when issue appeals correspond to group appeals, candidates perform best when making issue appeals alone.

Bridging the Partisan Divide on Immigration Policy With Human Trafficking. While there is a rich literature describing the determinants of anti-immigrant sentiment, researchers have not yet identified a mechanism to reduce antipathy towards immigrants. In fact, extant research has shown that efforts to induce positive attitudes toward immigrants often backfire. But might a bipartisan issue area in which there is general support act as a bridging frame to elicit more positive sentiment toward immigration among those who oppose more open immigration policies? Bonilla and Cecilia Mo of Vanderbilt University conduct survey experiments in which immigration is linked with the bipartisan issue area of human trafficking. By forcing individuals to reconcile the fact that a widely accepted issue position of combatting trafficking also requires a reassessment in immigration policies, attitudes on immigration shift in a more positive direction.

Selected Publications

Bonilla, T., and J. Grimmer. 2013. Elevated threat-levels and decreased expectations: How democracy handles terrorist threatsPoetics 41: 650–69.