Ongoing Research

Polarization Eh? Ideological Divergence and Partisan Sorting in the Canadian Mass Public

There has be increasing concern among commentators and scholars about a possible polarization of the Canadian public that resembles what we have seen south of the border. There are, however, multiple competing conceptual definitions and perspectives on polarization, and we do not yet have a full and complete picture on which dimensions Canadians have or have not polarized, nor on the magnitudes of any patterns. This paper uses the cumulative file of the Canadian Election Study (CES) to measure trends in ideological divergence, ideological consistency, and partisan sorting in the Canadian mass public. It finds little evidence that Canadians are becoming more polarized. They are, however, becoming modestly more ideologically consistent, and much more sorted – that is, partisanship, ideology, and policy beliefs are increasingly interconnected, particularly among those with high levels of political interest. This paper also provides some evidence as to the mechanism undergirding partisan sorting using the 2004-2008 CES panel. Partisan sorting appears to be driven by people switching their partisanship into closer alignment with their beliefs rather than vice versa. These findings call for additional research on the causes and consequences of partisan sorting in Canada, and further efforts to situate them in a comparative context.

Ideological and Partisan Bias in the Canadian Public: Evidence from Three Studies

Some scholars have found that Canadians are both becoming more sorted – in that their partisanship and policy beliefs are increasingly correlated – and more affectively polarized. These processes should have observable consequences in Canada, such as the biased search and assimilation of political information. This paper presents the results of three studies that test for partisan or ideological bias in information search and processing using the Digital Democracy Project’s 2019 Canadian Election Study. Study 1 is a paired conjoint experiment that asks respondents to choose from a pair of hypothetical news stories that they would be most interested in reading. Respondents were more likely to select politically-congenial news content, but not sources. Study 2 tests for partisan-motivated responsiveness to party elite cues. Respondents were provided with a policy vignette that manipulated the presence of party elite cues and a motivational prime (either accuracy or direction). Respondents exposed to party cues gave more partisan-congenial responses, but only when their political, directional motivation was primed. Study 3 required respondents to solve a randomly assigned numeracy task. The results show that respondents given a political variant of the task were much more likely to get the answer right (or wrong) when the answer was congenial (or opposed) to their ideological preferences. Ideology did not predict correct answers among those exposed to the non-political task, but numerical aptitude did. Taken together, these three studies provide novel evidence of partisan and ideological bias in the Canadian public.

Whose News? The Media and the Distribution of Economic Gains and Losses

(with Tim Hicks, Alan Jacobs, and Scott Matthews)

There is considerable evidence that citizens’ choices at the ballot box are shaped by their assessments of the state of the economy. We also know that economic perceptions are considerably influenced by the news, and that economic news responds differently to different kinds of economic developments. This paper advances our understanding of how the news responds to the economy by investigating _whose_ economic welfare drives economic reporting. In particular, how responsive is economic news to developments shaping the material fortunes of the rich, the broad middle, or the poor? In this paper, we analyze a massive dataset of economic news content over the last three decades in the United States to examine how the tone of economic news responds to real economic developments with differing distributional consequences. The analysis draws on all economic news stories from the New York Times and the Washington Post between 1977 and 2013, together with all economic news from 13 other newspapers among the top 50 in print or digital circulation between the years 1991 and 2013, yielding a dataset of almost 1 million observations. We use Lexicoder, an automated, dictionary-based coding tool with high validity for large samples, to measure the positivity or negativity of all economic stories in the selected newspapers. This allows us to generate annual and quarterly tone scores for the economic news being consumed by a large share of the American electorate over the last three decades (cf. Soroka, Stecula & Wlezien, 2014). We validate this index as a measure of the tone of the broad news environment by demonstrating that it acts as a strong predictor of consumer evaluations of the state of the economy and of the government’s performance in managing the economy (when controlling for actual economic conditions). We then undertake time-series analysis to examine how well the tone of economic news tracks changes in economic fundamentals with differing distributional implications, including median earnings, corporate profits, and capital incomes. The results will provide novel insight into the political economy of economic information, yielding a systematic and detailed portrait of the informational environment within which voters punish and reward their representatives. The findings will also help us make further sense of the mass politics of inequality (Bartels, 2008; Gilens, 2012). Whether low- and middle-income voters are equipped to defend their economic interests at election time depends critically on the distributional content of the informational environment in which they make economic and electoral judgments.

Prepared for presentation at the APSA Annual Conference 2016 in Philadelphia. Link here.

Protest Under Uncertainty: Evidence from a Survey Experiment

(with Miriam Matejova)

Environmental disasters generate uncertainty, which is a crucial element of post-disaster political dynamics. Does communication of uncertainty affect public willingness to participate in political activism such as protest? In theory, uncertainty framing may trigger emotions like anxiety, which reduce people’s willingness to engage in protest activity. Since uncertainty frames are often used to reify the status quo, the dampening effect of uncertainty will be stronger among those who are ideologically conservative. This article provides a content analysis of news coverage to show that uncertainty framing is prevalent in the aftermath of several important disasters. The article then presents a survey experiment of over 3,600 Americans recruited through Amazon Mechanical Turk. Uncertainty framing did not affect respondents’ self-reported anxiety and willingness to engage in political activism. However, such framing dampened the willingness to protest among more ideologically conservative respondents, while liberals were comparatively resistant. These results help explain why some protest coalitions may have more breadth than others after environmental disasters.