Eric Merkley and Andrew Owen. 2019. “Back to the Future: Democratic Responsiveness and the Estimation of Future Public Opinion.” International Journal of Public Opinion Research. Forthcoming.
Abstract: Research on the responsiveness of policy to public opinion has infrequently confronted the possibility that re-election seeking politicians’ policy choices may reflect their expectations about future public opinion. This paper reports observational and experimental findings from a survey of senior Canadian policy makers. Results from vignette-based experiments that manipulate the characteristics of current and estimates of future opinion show that policy makers are responsive to the estimated direction of future opinion, but this relationship is conditional on high estimated future salience. Survey results shed additional light on the role that estimates of future opinion play in policy making. Combined, these experimental and observational results suggest existing empirical work on policy responsiveness is incomplete.
Eric Merkley, Fred Cutler, Paul J. Quirk, and Benjamin Nyblade. 2019. “Having their Say: Authority, Voice, and Satisfaction with Democracy.” Journal of Politics. Online Access.
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.
Eric Merkley. 2019. “Learning from Divided Parties? Legislator Dissent as a Cue for Opinion Formation.” Parliamentary Affairs. Online Access.
Abstract: Scholars have generally seen united parties as normatively desirable. However, little work has explored the implications of divided parties for public opinion. This article examines whether legislator dissent reduces public support for the policy positions of divided parties. Dissent can do this in two ways: by undermining the consistency of party cues sent to co-partisans of the divided party; or by providing a signal regarding the likely distance of the policy proposal from citizen preferences. These possibilities are evaluated here using a survey experiment. Respondents were exposed to mock news articles about a debate on a bill that manipulated the presence of dissent on government benches and its spatial location—either proximate to the opposition party or located on the government party’s ideological flank. Legislator dissent appears to reduce the support of government policy for opposition co-partisans, but only when it is centrist and for those with high levels of political knowledge. These results suggest legislator dissent can act as a cue, if a complex one, to help citizens form policy evaluations in line with their preferences.
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.
Abstract: The news media play an influential role in shaping public attitudes on a wide range of issues—climate change included. As climate change has risen in salience, the average American is much more likely to be exposed to news coverage now than in the past. Yet, we don’t have a clear understanding of how the content of this news coverage has changed over time, despite likely playing an important part in fostering or inhibiting public support and engagement in climate action. In this paper we use a combination of automated and manual content analysis of the most influential media sources in the U.S. -the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the Associated Press- to illustrate the prevalence of different frames in the news coverage of climate change and their dynamics over time from the start of the climate change debate in 1988. Specifically, we focus on three types of frames, based on previous research: economic costs and benefits associated with climate mitigation, appeals to conservative and free market values and principles, and uncertainties and risk surrounding climate change. We find that many of the frames found to reduce people’s propensity to support and engage in climate action have been on the decline in the mainstream media, such as frames emphasizing potential economic harms of climate mitigation policy or uncertainty. At the same time, frames conducive to such engagement by the general public have been on the rise, such as those highlighting economic benefits of climate action. News content is also more likely now than in the past to use language emphasizing risk and danger, and to use the present tense. To the extent that media framing plays an important role in fostering climate action in the public, these are welcome developments.
Eric Merkley. 2018. “Partisan Bias in Economic News Content: New Evidence.” American Politics Research. Online Access.
Abstract: Claims that the mainstream media are biased in favor of the Democratic Party are commonplace. However, empirical research has yielded mixed results and neglected potential bias in the dynamics of media behavior and the exploration of observable implications of a biased media environment. This paper contributes to this literature by using time series analyses of the dynamics in media tone based on over 400,000 stories on inflation and unemployment from top-circulating American print media and the Associated Press newswire. The results suggest there is bias in favor of Democratic presidents. Media tone in unemployment and inflation coverage is more favorable during Democratic presidencies after controlling for economic performance. Tone is also generally more responsive to negative, short-term changes in economic conditions during Republican presidencies. In other words, bias is stronger with worsening economic conditions.
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.
Abstract: Americans polarized on climate change despite decreasing uncertainty in climate science. Explanations focused on organized climate skeptics and ideologically driven motivated reasoning are likely insufficient. Instead, Americans may have formed their attitudes by using party elite cues. We analyze the content of over 8,000 print, broadcast, and cable news stories. We find that coverage became increasingly partisan as climate change rose in salience, but climate skeptics received scant attention. Democratic messages were more voluminous and consistently pro–climate science, while Republican messages have been scarcer and ambiguous until recently. This suggests Republican voters took cues from Democratic elites to reject climate science.