Certainty or Accessibility: Attitude Strength in Candidate Evaluations


  • A previous version of this article was presented at the 2001 Midwest Political Science Association annual meeting. I would like to thank John Sullivan, Milton Lodge, Gene Borgida, Joanne Miller, Jan Leighley, Kim Hill, three anonymous reviewers, and especially Wendy Rahn for extensive comments and suggestions. Rebekah Orr provided assistance collecting and processing the data. A National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and National Science Foundation grant SES-9905317 supported this research. All errors are my own.

David A. M. Peterson is Assistant Professor of Political Science, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas 77843-4348 (dave@polisci.tamu.edu).


Attitude strength is an important, but contested, subject in social psychology. Political scientists often rely on measures of attitude strength such as attitude importance, accessibility, or certainty in their work while ignoring the politically meaningful differences across types of strength. This omission is particularly relevant in the discussion of the formation of candidate evaluations. The research reported here indicates that accessibility is not the relevant type of attitude strength when describing how voters use issues in evaluating candidates. Instead, voters' reliance on issues when evaluating candidates depends on the voter's certainty about where the candidates stand. Given the different antecedents of certainty and accessibility, this result suggests that that citizens are able to more carefully process and use information available to them during an election campaign than would be expected by the prevailing theories of attitude formation.