Expert Commentary

Elite influence on public opinion in an informed electorate

2011 study in the American Political Science Review on the influence political party elites hold over public perception of policy positions.

Public policy issues such as taxation, health care and the deficit are enormously complex, and political organizations compete to define the “correct” positions on issues. While it is often assumed that citizens take their cues from political party leaders, little research has been done on these dynamics of influence.

A 2011 Yale University study published in the American Political Science Review, “Elite Influence on Public Opinion in an Informed Electorate,” details two experiments that were performed to better understand how members of the public are influenced by party elites in the formation of policy opinions and to see how well they can arrive at views on policy independent of party lines. As the author states, “The normative case for democracy loses much of its force if citizens arrive at their political views unthinkingly…. Many scholars fear that citizens are doing just this — mechanically adopting the positions of their party leaders even when they have other information on which to base their judgments.”

The study’s findings include:

  • In the first experiment, 2,473 participants (half Republicans, half Democrats) were presented with an article containing either liberal or conservative health care policy alternatives. Some were randomly assigned an article that contained party cues, while some were not.
  • Within a policy area, study participants were slightly more likely to agree with a policy if the article stated their party agreed with it, and less likely if the article stated the opposition party agreed with it or that their party did not. However, the difference in attitudes was dwarfed by the observed differences in attitude between liberal and conservative policies even when party cues were kept constant.
  • The second experiment, 3,713 participants were randomly offered an article with either no party cue or the cue “Democrats oppose this policy.” Adding this cue changed attitudes to the policy by 9%, while changing the information about the policy, from conservative to liberal or vice versa, changed attitudes by 21%.
  • “In both experiments, Democrats were far more affected by policy than by party cues, but Republicans were almost equally affected by these factors in Experiment 1 and slightly more affected by party cues in Experiment 2.”

“These results warrant a measure of optimism about partisans’ ability to hold meaningful policy views,” the author concludes. “To be sure, partisans are rarely exposed to more than meager descriptions of policy. But when they are, the results suggest that they can arrive at policy views that are independent of and even contrary to the views of their party leaders.”

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