Selected Articles

Public Opinion Quarterly28. Eric Merkley. 2023. “Polarization Eh? Ideological Divergence and Partisan Sorting in the Canadian Mass Public.” Public Opinion Quarterly.

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Abstract: There has been increasing concern among commentators and scholars about polarization in Canada. This note uses the Canadian Election Study from 1993-2019 to measure trends in ideological divergence, ideological consistency, and partisan-ideological sorting in the Canadian mass public. It finds only mixed evidence that Canadians are diverging ideologically and becoming more polarized – ideological distributions are unimodal and trends towards more dispersion are slight and driven entirely by the last two election cycles. Canadians are, however, becoming modestly more ideologically consistent and much more sorted – that is, partisanship, ideological identification, and policy beliefs are increasingly interconnected. These findings call for additional research on the causes and consequences of mass polarization in Canada and further efforts to situate these results, along with findings from the United States, in a comparative context.

X0264410X27. Eric Merkley and Peter John Loewen. 2022. “The Correlates and Dynamics of Vaccine-Specific Hesitancy.” Vaccine 40(13): 2020-7.

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Abstract: Most work on COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy has focused on its attitudinal and demographic correlates among individuals, but the characteristics of vaccines themselves also appear to be important. People are more willing to take vaccines with higher reported levels of efficacy and safety. Has this dynamic sparked comparative hesitancy towards specific COVID-19 vaccines? We conduct a series of cross-sectional survey experiments to test for brand-based differences in perceived effectiveness, perceived safety, and vaccination intention. Examining more than 6,200 individuals in a series of cross-sectional surveys, we find considerably more reluctance to take the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines compared to those from Pfizer and Moderna if offered, despite all vaccines being approved and deemed safe and effective by a federal regulator. Comparative hesitancy towards these vaccines grew over the course of fielding as controversy arose over their link to extremely rare, but serious side effects. Comparative vaccine-specific hesitancy is strongest among people who are usually most open to mass vaccination efforts. Its effects are substantial: most respondents reported a willingness to wait months for their preferred vaccine rather than receive either the AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson vaccine immediately. Our findings call for additional research on the determinants and consequences of COVID-19 vaccine-specific hesitancy and communication strategies to minimize this challenge.

CjOeC8LWYAATgC-26. John M. Carey, Andrew M. Guess, Peter John Loewen, Eric Merkley, Brendan Nyhan, Joseph B. Phillips, and Jason Reifler. 2022. “The Ephemeral Effects of Fact-checks on COVID-19 Misperceptions in the United States, Great Britain, and Canada.” Nature Human Behaviour 6: 236-43.

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Abstract: Widespread misperceptions about COVID-19 and the novel coronavirus threaten to exacerbate the severity of the pandemic. We conducted preregistered survey experiments in the United States, Great Britain and Canada examining the effectiveness of fact-checks that seek to correct these false or unsupported beliefs. Across three countries with differing levels of political conflict over the pandemic response, we demonstrate that fact-checks reduce targeted misperceptions, especially among the groups who are most vulnerable to these claims, and have minimal spillover effects on the accuracy of related beliefs. However, these reductions in COVID-19 misperception beliefs do not persist over time in panel data even after repeated exposure. These results suggest that fact-checks can successfully change the COVID-19 beliefs of the people who would benefit from them most but that their effects are ephemeral.

X0261379425. Eric Merkley, Thomas Bergeron, Peter John Loewen, Angelo Elias, and Miriam Lapp. 2022. “Communicating Safety Precautions Can Help Maintain In-person Voter Turnout During a Pandemic.” Electoral Studies 75: 102421.

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Abstract: Scholars have linked cost and life stress to lower voter turnout with clear implications for voting during the COVID-19 pandemic. We ask whether COVID-19 reduces turnout intention and how election agencies can mitigate this effect. We use a series of six survey and conjoint experiments implemented in samples totalling over 28,000 Canadian respondents collected between July and November of 2020 to show that: 1) priming people to think about COVID-19 reduces turnout intention, especially among those who feel most threatened by the disease; 2) safety measures for in-person voting, such as mandatory masks and physical distancing, can improve safety perceptions and willingness to vote in-person, and 3) providing people information about safety precautions for in-person voting mitigates the negative effect of priming COVID-19. These studies illustrate the importance of both the implementation and communication of measures by election agencies designed to make people safe – and feel safe – while voting in-person.

UPCP_I_36_03_COVER.indd24. Eran Amsalem, Eric Merkley, and Peter John Loewen. 2021. “Does Talking to the Other Side Reduce Inter-party Hostility? Evidence from Three Studies.” Political Communication 39(1): 61-78.

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Abstract: According to recent scholarship, citizens in various Western democracies show a growing sense of dislike and distrust toward members of opposing political parties. While political communication processes have been shown to influence inter-party hostility, the literature has so far focused mainly on mass-mediated communication. We argue here that affective polarization might also be determined by interpersonal political communication. Specifically, we hypothesize that “heterogeneous” political discussions—those transcending partisan and ideological boundaries—are associated with decreased hostility toward the other side. We test this hypothesis with three studies conducted in Canada: A cross-sectional survey (N = 3,596), a two- wave panel (N = 3,408), and an instrumental variable analysis (N = 2,005). We find that heterogeneous discussion indeed is associated with reduced polarization, a conclusion that holds across indicators of affect, obtains for both face-to-face and online discussions, and is consistent across studies. Having a heterogeneous (compared to homogeneous) discussion network predicts substantial decreases of up to 0.76, and no less than 0.09, standard deviations in out-party hostility. These findings inform scholarly debates about the antecedents of affective polarization and are consistent with the claim that cross-cutting political discussion can benefit democracy.

CjOeC8LWYAATgC-23. Eric Merkley and Peter John Loewen. 2021. “Anti-intellectualism and the Mass Public’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Nature Human Behaviour 5(1): 706-15.

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Abstract: Anti-intellectualism – the generalized distrust of experts and intellectuals – is an important concept in explaining the public’s engagement with advice from scientists and experts. We ask whether it has shaped the mass public’s response to COVID-19. We provide evidence of a consistent connection between anti-intellectualism and COVID-19 risk perceptions, social distancing, mask usage, misperceptions, and information acquisition using a representative survey of 27,615 Canadians conducted from March to July 2020. We exploit a panel-component of our design (N=4,910) to strongly link anti-intellectualism and within-respondent change in mask usage. Finally, we provide experimental evidence of anti-intellectualism’s importance in information search behaviour with two conjoint studies (N~2,500) that show respondents’ preferences for COVID-19 news and COVID-19 information from experts dissipate among those with higher levels of anti-intellectual sentiment. Anti-intellectualism poses a fundamental challenge in maintaining and increasing public compliance with expert-guided COVID-19 health directives.

american_political science review22. Alan Jacobs, J. Scott Matthews, Timothy Hicks, and Eric Merkley. 2021. “Whose News? Class-biased Economic Reporting in the United States.” American Political Science Review 115(3): 1016-33.

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Abstract: There is substantial evidence that voters’ choices are shaped by assessments of the state of the economy and that these assessments, in turn, are influenced by the news. But how does the economic news track the welfare of different income groups in an era of rising inequality? Whose economy does the news cover? Drawing on a large new data set of U.S. news content, we demonstrate that the tone of the economic news strongly and disproportionately tracks the fortunes of the richest households, with little sensitivity to income changes among the non-rich. Further, we present evidence that this “class bias” emerges not from pro-rich journalistic preferences but, rather, from the interaction of the media’s focus on economic aggregates with structural features of the relationship between economic growth and distribution. The findings yield a novel explanation of distributionally perverse electoral patterns and demonstrate how distributional biases in the economy condition economic accountability.

CJP43_4-cover.qxp21. Eric Merkley. 2021. “Ideological and Partisan Bias in the Canadian Public.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 54(2): 267–91.

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Abstract: Partisan and affective polarization should have observable consequences in Canada, such as bias in political information search and processing. This paper presents the results of three studies that test for partisan and ideological bias using the Digital Democracy Project’s 2019 Canadian Election Study. Study 1 uses a conjoint experiment where respondents choose from pairs of hypothetical news stories where the slant of the source and headline are both randomized. Study 2 tests for partisan-motivated responsiveness to elite cues with a policy vignette that manipulates the presence of party elite cues and a motivational prime. Study 3 requires respondents to solve a randomly assigned numeracy task that is either political or nonpolitical in nature. Results suggest that 1) Canadians select politically congenial information, though not sources of such information; 2) follow elite cues when partisan motivation is primed; and 3) evaluate evidence in ways that are biased by their ideological beliefs.

journal_of experimental political science20. Aengus Bridgman, Eric Merkley, Peter John Loewen, Taylor Owen, and Derek Ruths. 2021. “All in this Together? A Preregistered Report on Evaluations of Deservingness of Government Aid during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Journal of Experimental Political Science. Online Access.

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Abstract: The COVID-19 pandemic has placed unprecedented pressure on governments to engage in widespread cash transfers directly to citizens to help mitigate economic losses. Major redistribution efforts have been aimed at a variety of sub-groups within society (the unemployed, those with children, those with pre-existing health conditions, etc.), but there is remarkably little understanding of where the mass public believes financial support is warranted. Using experimental evidence, we evaluate whether considerations around deservingness, similarity, and prejudicial attitudes structure support for these transfers. A preregistered experiment found broad, generous, and non-discriminatory support for direct cash transfers related to COVID-19 in Canada. A second study, accepted as a preregistered report, further probed these dynamics by comparing COVID-19 related outlays with non-emergency ones. We find that COVID-19 related spending was more universal as compared to a more generic cash allocation program, however, the results were driven by the income of hypothetical recipients.

british_journal of political science19. Eric Merkley and Dominik A. Stecula. 2021. “Party Cues in the News: Democratic Elites, Republican Backlash, and the Dynamics of Climate Skepticism.” British Journal of Political Science 51(4): 1439–56.

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Abstract: Supporters of the Republican Party have become much more skeptical of the science of climate change since the 1990s. We argue that backlash to out-group cues from Democratic elites played an important role in this process. We construct aggregate measures of climate skepticism from nearly 200 public opinion polls at the quarterly level from 2001 to 2014 and at the annual level from 1986 to 2014. We also build time series measures of possible contributors to climate skepticism using an automated media content analysis. Our analyses provide evidence that cues from party elites – especially from Democrats – are associated with aggregate dynamics in climate change skepticism including among supporters of the Republican Party. We then conduct a party cue survey experiment on a sample of 3,000 Americans through Amazon Mechanical Turk to provide more evidence of causality. Together, these results draw attention to the importance of out-group cue-taking and suggest we should see climate change skepticism through the lens of elite-led opinion formation.


18. Eric Merkley. 2020. “Are Experts (News)Worthy? Balance, Conflict, and Mass Media Coverage of Expert Consensus.” Political Communication 37(4): 530-49.

Winner: Paul A. Sabatier Award for best paper presented at APSA 2019 in science, technology, and environmental politics

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Abstract: Overlooked in analyses of why the public often rejects expert consensus is the role of the information environment. News coverage of expert consensus on general matters of policy is likely limited as a result of journalists’ emphasis in news production on novelty and drama at the expense of thematic context. News content is also biased towards balance and conflict, which may dilute the persuasiveness of expert consensus. This study presents an automated and manual analysis of over 280,000 news stories on ten issues where there are important elements of agreement among scientists or economists. The analyses show that news content typically emphasizes arguments aligned with positions of expert consensus, rather than providing balance, and only occasionally cites contrarian experts. More troubling is that expert messages containing information about important areas of agreement are infrequent in news content, and cues signaling the existence of consensus are rarer still.

Public Opinion Quarterly

17. Eric Merkley. 2020. “Anti-intellectualism, Populism, and Motivated Resistance to Expert Consensus.” Public Opinion Quarterly 84(1): 24-48.

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Abstract: Scholars have maintained that public attitudes often diverge from expert consensus due to ideology-driven motivated reasoning. However, this is not a sufficient explanation on less salient and politically-charged questions. I argue that more attention needs to be given to anti-intellectualism – the generalized mistrust of intellectuals and experts. I make three main contributions using the General Social Survey and a survey of 3,600 Americans on Amazon Mechanical Turk. First, I provide evidence of a strong association between anti-intellectualism and opposition to scientific positions on climate change, nuclear power, GMOs, and water fluoridation, particularly for respondents with higher levels of political interest. Second, I conduct a survey experiment to show that anti-intellectualism moderates the acceptance expert consensus cues such that respondents with high levels of anti-intellectualism actually increase their opposition to these positions in response. Third, I connect anti-intellectualism to populism – a worldview that sees political conflict as primarily between ordinary citizens and a privileged societal elite. I show that exposure to randomly assigned populist rhetoric – even that which does not pertain to experts directly – primes anti-intellectual predispositions among respondents in the processing of expert consensus cues. These findings suggest that rising anti-elite rhetoric may make anti-intellectual sentiment more salient in information processing.

843063716. Eric Merkley, Fred Cutler, Paul J. Quirk, and Benjamin Nyblade. 2019. “Having their Say: Authority, Voice, and Satisfaction with Democracy.” Journal of Politics 81(3): 848-61.

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Abstract: As studies using macrolevel evidence have shown, citizens are more satisfied with democracy when they feel that their instrumental preferences are represented in government, and this feeling is more likely in nonmajoritarian institutional contexts. Scholars have given less attention to whether such institutions also increase satisfaction by providing more inclusive political discourse. Citizens may value having their voice represented in politics, regardless of the resulting authority. This article presents the first microlevel evidence of this mechanism by having subjects experience a simulated election campaign that manipulates both the political discourse and the outcome independently. We find that subjects were less satisfied with democracy when their party lost the election, but this effect disappeared when the campaign discourse featured thorough discussion of an issue that they felt was important. The findings suggest that institutions and party systems that provide more diverse voices may soften the blow of losing elections.

Other Articles

15. Gabrielle, Brankston, Eric Merkley, Peter John Loewen, Brent P. Avery, Carolee A. Carson, Brendan P. Dougherty, David N. Fisman, Ashleigh R. Tuite, Zvonimir Poljak, Amy L. Greer. 2022. “Pandemic Fatigue or Enduring Precautionary Behaviours? Canadians’ Long-term Response to COVID-19 Public Health Measures.” Preventative Medicine Reports, 30.

Published Article     Pre-print Version

14. John M. Carey, Tracy Keirns, Peter John Loewen, Eric Merkley, Brendan Nyhan, Joseph B. Phillips, Judy R. Rees, and Jason Reifler. 2022. “Minimal Effects From Injunctive Norm and Contentiousness Treatments on COVID-19 Vaccine Intentions: Evidence from Three Countries.” PNAS Nexus 1(2).

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13. Gabrielle Brankston, Eric Merkley, David N. Fisman, Ashleigh R. Tuite, Zvonimir Poljak, Peter John Loewen, and Amy Greer. 2021. “Quantifying Contact Patterns in Response to COVID-19 Public Health Measures in Canada.” BMC Public Health 21.

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12. Eric Merkley and Peter John Loewen. 2021. “Assessment of Communication Strategies for Mitigating COVID-19 Vaccine-Specific Hesitancy in Canada.” JAMA Network Open 4(9).

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11. Miriam Matejova and Eric Merkley. 2021. “Protest Under Uncertainty: Evidence from a Survey Experiment.” Environmental Communication. Online Access.

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10. Alex B. Rivard and Eric Merkley. 2021. “What Moooves Opinion? Examining the Correlates and Dynamics of Mass Support for Supply Management.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 54(3): 674–95.

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9. Gabrielle Brankston, Eric Merkley, David N. Fisman, Ashleigh R. Tuite, Zvonimir Poljak, Peter John Loewen, and Amy Greer. 2021. “Sociodemographic Disparities in Knowledge, Practices, and Ability to Comply with COVID-19 Public Health Measures in Canada.” Canadian Journal of Public Health 112: 363-75.

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8. Aengus Bridgman, Eric Merkley, Peter John Loewen, Taylor Owen, Derek Ruths, and Oleg Zhilin. 2021. “Infodemic Pathways: Evaluating the Role that Traditional and Social Media Play in Cross-national Information Transfer.” Frontiers in Political Science.

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7. Eric Merkley, Aengus Bridgman, Peter John Loewen, Taylor Owen, Derek Ruths, and Oleg Zhilin. 2020. “A Rare Moment of Cross-Partisan Consensus: Elite and Public Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic in Canada.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 53(2): 311-8.

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6. Aengus Bridgman, Eric Merkley, Peter John Loewen, Taylor Owen, Derek Ruths, Lisa Teichmann, and Oleg Zhilin. 2020. “The Causes and Consequences of COVID-19 Misperceptions: Understanding the Role of News and Social Media.” Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Misinformation Review.

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5. Eric Merkley and Andrew Owen. 2020. “Back to the Future: Democratic Responsiveness and the Estimation of Future Public Opinion.” International Journal of Public Opinion Research 32(2): 203-22.

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4. Eric Merkley. 2020. “Learning from Divided Parties? Legislator Dissent as a Cue for Opinion Formation.” Parliamentary Affairs 73(2): 342–62.

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3. Eric Merkley. 2019. “Partisan Bias in Economic News Content: New Evidence.” American Politics Research 47(6): 1303-23.

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2. Dominik Stecula and Eric Merkley. 2019. “Framing Climate Change: Economics, Ideology, and Uncertainty in American News Media Content from 1988 to 2014.” Frontiers in Communication.

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1. Eric Merkley and Dominik A. Stecula. 2018. “Party Elites or Manufactured Doubt? The Informational Context of Climate Change Polarization.” Science Communication 40(2): 258-74.

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