Photo of an opened laptop with different graphs and charts on the screen, Photo Credit: Lucas Blazek / Unsplash
Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics

Elections & Public Opinion in the U.S.

Political opinions tend to be highly stable over time, but for some issues, such as gay marriage, there have been significant changes in recent years. Panel data are used to better understand these changes. 

Related Studies

Diana C. Mutz, Rasmus Tue Pedersen. 2019. Attitudes Toward Economic Inequality: The Illusory Agreement.  Political Science Research and Methods. 7: 835-851

Recent studies of attitudes toward economic inequality suggest that most people around the world prefer very low levels of inequality, despite well-known trends toward greater inequality within many countries. Even within countries, people across the political spectrum are said to be in remarkable agreement about the ideal level of economic inequality. Using survey data from 40 countries and a novel survey experiment in the United States, we show that this apparent agreement is illusory. When relying on a widely used cross-national survey measure of Ideal Pay Ratios, preferred levels of inequality are heavily influenced by two well-documented sources of perceptual distortion: the anchoring effect and ratio bias. These effects are substantial and many times larger than the influence of fundamental political predispositions. As a result, these cross-national survey measures tapping preferences regarding economic inequality produce misleading conclusions about desired levels of inequality.

Download Paper

Diana C. Mutz, Hye-Yon Lee. 2019. Changing Attitudes Toward Same-Sex Marriage: A Three-Wave Panel Study. Political Behavior. 41: 701–722

Opinions toward gay marriage, also known as same-sex marriage, have become dramatically more favorable in the last 20 years. Given the more accepting attitudes of younger Americans, generational replacement is one widely noted engine of change. However, the pace of shifts in public attitudes has been too rapid for this to be the sole explanation. Identifying other causes of increasing support has been difficult due to reliance on cross-sectional associations. Using nationally representative panel data from 2008 to 2016, we test three potential explanations for changes in public attitudes toward gay marriage. Our findings suggest that increased interpersonal contact with gays and lesbians, declining religiosity, and increasing levels of education in the U.S. all contributed to the rise in public support for same-sex marriage.

Download Paper

Diana C. Mutz, Andrew Daniller. 2019. The Dynamics of Electoral Integrity: A Three Election Panel Study.  Public Opinion Quarterly. 83: 46-67

When political leaders are chosen by democratic means, the electoral process supposedly legitimates their authority, whatever the outcome. Nonetheless, disliked democratic outcomes may result instead in denigration of the electoral process. If positive reactions to winning and negative reactions to losing ultimately balance one another out, then perceived electoral integrity should remain roughly constant in a highly competitive political environment such as the United States. However, little is known about the symmetry or duration of these effects. Using panel data spanning more than nine years, we examine individual perceptions of electoral integrity across three American presidential election cycles. Our conclusions suggest that the effects of winning versus losing are not symmetric. Moreover, effects on people’s perceptions of electoral integrity are surprisingly persistent over time. We find that repeated losing has especially important long-term consequences for how citizens view elections.

Download Paper

Yphtach Lelkes. 2018. Selling Ourselves Short? How Abbreviated Measures of Personality Change the Way We Think about Personality and Politics.  Journal of Politics. 80

Political scientists who study the interplay between personality and politics overwhelmingly rely on short personality scales. We explore whether the length of the employed personality scales affects the criterion validity of the scales. We show that need for cognition (NfC) increases reliance on party cues, but only when a longer measure is employed. Additionally, while NfC increases reliance on policy information, the effect is more than twice as large when a longer measure is used. Finally, Big Five personality traits that have been dismissed as irrelevant to political ideology yield stronger and more consistent associations when larger batteries are employed. We also show that using high Cronbach’s alpha and factor loadings as indicators of scale quality does not improve the criterion validity of brief measures. Hence, the measurement of personality conditions the conclusions we draw about the role of personality in politics.

Download Paper



Yphtach Lelkes. 2018. Projecting Confidence: How the Probabilistic Horse Race Confuses and Demobilizes the Public SSRN

Horse race coverage in American elections has shifted focus from late-breaking poll numbers to sophisticated meta analytic forecasts that often emphasize candidates' probability of victory. We place this "probabilistic horeserace" in the context of Riker and Ordeshook (1968), and hypothesize that it will lower uncertainty about an election's outcome (perceived potential pivotality), which lowers turnout under the model. After demonstrating the prominence of probabilistic forecasts in election coverage, we use experiments to show that the public has difficulty reasoning about the probability of a candidate’s victory. Critically, when one candidate is ahead, win-probabilities convey substantially more confidence that she will win compared to vote share estimates. Even more importantly, we show that these impressions of probabilistic forecasts cause people not to vote in a behavioral game that simulates elections. In the context of the existing literature, the magnitude of these findings suggests that probabilistic horse race coverage can confuse and demobilize the public.

Download Paper

Andrew Daniller. 2018. Experimental Evidence for Tipping Points in Social Convention. Science. 360: 1116-1119 

Theoretical models of critical mass have shown how minority groups can initiate social change dynamics in the emergence of new social conventions. Here, we study an artificial system of social conventions in which human subjects interact to establish a new coordination equilibrium. The findings provide direct empirical demonstration of the existence of a tipping point in the dynamics of changing social conventions. When minority groups reached the critical mass—that is, the critical group size for initiating social change—they were consistently able to overturn the established behavior. The size of the required critical mass is expected to vary based on theoretically identifiable features of a social setting. Our results show that the theoretically predicted dynamics of critical mass do in fact emerge as expected within an empirical system of social coordination.

Download Paper

Diana C. Mutz. 2017. Changing Party Alignments in American Attitudes Toward Trade: Reflections on the Past, Implications for the Future

Partisan alignments with respect to free trade have changed many times during the course of our  nation’s history.  Nonetheless, for decades,  up until just a few years  ago,  Republicans  had  been  known as the party of free trade.  As of 2016,  this is clearly no longer the case.  So when precisely did rank and file Republicans change their minds?

Yphtach Lelkes. 2017. The Hostile Audience: The Effect of Access to Broadband Internet on Partisan Affect American Journal of Political Science

Over the last two decades, as the number of media choices available to consumers has exploded, so too have worries over self‐selection into media audiences. Some fear greater apathy, others heightened polarization. In this article, we shed light on the latter possibility. We identify the impact of access to broadband Internet on affective polarization by exploiting differences in broadband availability brought about by variation in state right‐of‐way regulations (ROW). We merge state‐level regulation data with county‐level broadband penetration data and a large‐N sample of survey data from 2004 to 2008 and find that access to broadband Internet increases partisan hostility. The effect occurs in both years and is stable across levels of political interest. We also find that access to broadband Internet boosts partisans' consumption of partisan media, a likely cause of increased polarization.

Download Paper


Diana C. Mutz. 2016. Harry Potter and the Deathly Donald.  PS: Political Science and Politics. 49: to appear

Few empirical studies suggest that fictional stories can influence political opinions. Nonetheless, this study demonstrates the relevance of Harry Potter consumption- whether reading Harry Potter books or viewing Harry Potter movies-to attitudes toward Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president in 2016. Using multivariate models and panel data from 2014 to 2016, results suggest that the lessons of the Harry Potter series have influenced public reactions to Donald Trump as well as to support for punitive policies and tolerance of groups considered by some to be outside the American mainstream. 

Download paper


Andrew Daniller. 2016. Can Citizens Care Too Much? Investment in Election Outcomes and Perceptions of Electoral Legitimacy

Might there be a downside to citizen engagement with elections? The tendency for citizens who supported a winning candidate or party to be more supportive of the democratic system and more trusting of government than supporters of the losers has been well documented. I test the extent to which individual-level investment in a presidential election campaign amplifies effects of winning or losing using the online component of the 2008 NAES to track the same individuals' from pre-election to postelection. The analysis provides strong evidence of amplifying effects of investment on the relationship between winning or losing and perceptions of electoral legitimacy. Certain types of investment policy agreement and participation appear to hold significant implications only for losers and not winners.

Download Paper 


Seth K. Goldman, Diana C. MutzThe Obama Effect: How the 2008 Campaign Changed White Racial Attitudes. 2014. New York. Russell Sage Foundation Press. 

Barack Obama’s historic 2008 campaign exposed many white Americans more than ever before to a black individual who defied negative stereotypes. While Obama’s politics divided voters, Americans uniformly perceived Obama as highly successful, intelligent, and charismatic. What effect, if any, did the innumerable images of Obama and his family have on racial attitudes among whites? In The Obama Effect, Seth K. Goldman and Diana C. Mutz uncover persuasive evidence that white racial prejudice toward blacks significantly declined during the Obama campaign. Their innovative research rigorously examines how racial attitudes form, and whether they can be changed for the better.

The Obama Effect draws from a survey of 20,000 people, whom the authors interviewed up to five times over the course of a year. This panel survey sets the volume apart from most research on racial attitudes. From the summer of 2008 through Obama’s inauguration in 2009, there was a gradual but clear trend toward lower levels of white prejudice against blacks. Goldman and Mutz argue that these changes occurred largely without people’s conscious awareness. Instead, as Obama became increasingly prominent in the media, he emerged as an “exemplar” that countered negative stereotypes in the minds of white Americans. Unfortunately, this change in attitudes did not last. By 2010, racial prejudice among whites had largely returned to pre-2008 levels. Mutz and Goldman argue that news coverage of Obama declined substantially after his election, allowing other, more negative images of African Americans to re-emerge in the media. The Obama Effect arrives at two key conclusions: Racial attitudes can change even within relatively short periods of time, and how African Americans are portrayed in the mass media affects how they change.

Winner of the 2015 Frank Luther Mott - Kappa Tau Alpha Journalism & Mass Communication Research Award

Seth K. Goldman, Diana C. Mutz. 2010. "Effects of Mass Media.". Chapter x in . J.F. Dovidio, M. Hewstone. P. Glick, and V. M. Esses, Handbook of Prejudice, Stereotyping and Discrimination. London: Sage.

The way outgroup members are portrayed in the media is widely believed to have consequences for levels of prejudice and stereotyping in the mass public. The visual nature of television and its heavy viewership make it a key source of information for impressions that ingroup members may have of other social groups. However, most research to date has focused on documenting the portrayals of various groups in television content, with only a few studies documenting the causal impact of television viewing. To further understanding of this hypothesis, we outline the contributions and limitations of past work, and point to the most promising theoretical frameworks for studying media influence on outgroup attitudes. 

Download Paper