Learning and Opinion Change, Not Priming: Reconsidering the Priming Hypothesis


  • I thank Larry Bartels and Tali Mendelberg for their guidance, as well as Adam Berinsky, Martin Gilens, Matthew Hindman, Vince Hutchings, Richard Johnston, Karen Jusko, Jonathan Ladd, Joanne Miller, Andrew Owen, Markus Prior, Peter Krzywicki, Jasjeet Sekhon, John Sides, Byung Kwon Song, and Jeff Tessin for helpful suggestions.

Gabriel S. Lenz is Professor of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 77 Massachusetts Ave., E53-463, Cambridge, MA 02139 (glenz@mit.edu).


According to numerous studies, campaign and news media messages can alter the importance individuals place on an issue when evaluating politicians, an effect called priming. Research on priming revived scholarly interest in campaign and media effects and implied, according to some, that campaigns and the media can manipulate voters. There are, however, alternative explanations for these priming findings, alternatives that previous studies have not fully considered. In this article, I reanalyze four cases of alleged priming, using panel data to test priming effects against these alternatives. Across these four cases, I find little evidence of priming effects. Instead, campaign and media attention to an issue creates the appearance of priming through a two-part process: Exposing individuals to campaign and media messages on an issue (1) informs some of them about the parties’ or candidates’ positions on that issue. Once informed, (2) these individuals often adopt their preferred party's or candidate's position as their own.