Structural Topic Models for Open-Ended Survey Responses


  • Our thanks to the Caltech SURF program, IQSS's Program on Text Analysis, and Dustin Tingley's dean support for supporting Jetson's initial participation during the summer of 2012. Brandon Stewart gratefully acknowledges funding from a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. Alex Storer helped get computers to do their job. We thank the following for helpful comments and suggestions: Neal Beck, Justin Grimmer, Jennifer Jerit, Luke Keele, Gary King, Mik Laver, Rose McDermott, Helen Milner, Rich Nielsen, Brendan O'Connor, Mike Tomz, and participants in the Harvard Political Economy and Applied Statistics Workshops, UT Austin Government Department IR Seminar, Visions in Methodology 2013, and Stanford Methods Seminar. Replication files are available in the AJPS Data Archive on Dataverse ( The supplementary appendix is available at


Collection and especially analysis of open-ended survey responses are relatively rare in the discipline and when conducted are almost exclusively done through human coding. We present an alternative, semiautomated approach, the structural topic model (STM) (Roberts, Stewart, and Airoldi 2013; Roberts et al. 2013), that draws on recent developments in machine learning based analysis of textual data. A crucial contribution of the method is that it incorporates information about the document, such as the author's gender, political affiliation, and treatment assignment (if an experimental study). This article focuses on how the STM is helpful for survey researchers and experimentalists. The STM makes analyzing open-ended responses easier, more revealing, and capable of being used to estimate treatment effects. We illustrate these innovations with analysis of text from surveys and experiments.