Informing the Electorate? How Party Cues and Policy Information Affect Public Opinion about Initiatives

Authors


  • We thank the Institute of Governmental Affairs (IGA) at the University of California, Davis for generously funding this study. We are grateful to Fred Boehmke, John Bullock, Scott Gartner, Ben Highton, Bob Huckfeldt, Brad Jones, Jon Krosnick, Justin Levitt, Jeff Milyo, John Scott, and Walt Stone for valuable feedback. We also received helpful comments from participants in the IGA Policy Watch seminar and the Public Opinion Workshop at the University of California, Davis, the Political Psychology Research Group at Stanford, and the Social and Personality Psychology Workshop in the Psychology Department at the University of California, Davis. Data and replication files can be found at the AJPS Data Archive on Dataverse (http://dvn.iq.harvard.edu/dvn/dv/ajps).

Abstract

Citizens in representative democracies receive party endorsements and policy information when choosing candidates or making policy decisions via the initiative process. What effects do these sources of information have on public opinion? We address this important question by conducting survey experiments where citizens express opinions about initiatives in a real-world electoral context. We manipulate whether they receive party cues, policy information, both, or neither type of information. We find that citizens do not simply ignore policy information when they are also exposed to party cues. Rather, citizens respond by shifting their opinions away from their party's positions when policy information provides a compelling reason for doing so. These results challenge the prominent claim in public opinion research that citizens blindly follow their party when also exposed to policy information. They also suggest that efforts to inform the electorate can influence opinions, provided that citizens actually receive the information being disseminated.

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