Home Topic Model M(ichae)L News Research


Out of Step, but in the News? The Milquetoast Coverage of Incumbent Representatives

Why do citizens routinely fail to vote out of step representatives out of office and what institutions can help voters hold politicians accountable? To the extent that politicians exploit voters' lack of information to win at the ballot box despite shirking in Congress, the press could foster democratic accountability by sounding the alarm on out of step representatives and alerting otherwise inattentive voters that it is time for change. In this paper I collect an original dataset of local newspaper coverage of candidates in the 2010 House election in order to find out whether newspapers play this role for voters and act as a watchdog of incumbent representatives. After working with research assistants to provide human classification of a random subset of these articles, I use a text as data machine learning approach to measure the content of the much larger volume of articles that we cannot read. After validating an ensemble "SuperLearner" by demonstrating out-of-sample classification accuracy that for many features approaches human inter-coder agreement, I show that challengers receive less coverage than incumbents in competitive districts, horse race coverage displaces policy coverage, and newspapers do not sound the alarm on out of step incumbents. Even in congressional districts that closely correspond to newspaper markets, journalists act as neither watchdog nor lapdog, but instead provide overwhelmingly neutral coverage, failing to criticize incumbents who vote against a majority of their constituents on landmark legislation.

Published Papers

"Face Value? Experimental Evidence that Candidate Appearance Influences Electoral Choice." (with Douglas J. Ahler, Jack Citrin, and Gabriel S. Lenz) Polical Behavior (2017).

According to numerous studies, candidates’ looks predict voters’ choices—a finding that raises concerns about voter competence and about the quality of elected officials. This potentially worrisome finding, however, is observational and therefore vulnerable to alternative explanations. To better test the appearance effect, we conducted two experiments. Just before primary and general elections for various offices, we randomly assigned voters to receive ballots with and without candidate photos. Simply showing voters these pictures increased the vote for appearance-advantaged candidates. Experimental evidence therefore supports the view that candidates’ looks could influence some voters. In general elections, we find that high-knowledge voters appear immune to this influence, while low-knowledge voters use appearance as a low-information heuristic. In primaries, however, candidate appearance influences even high-knowledge and strongly partisan voters.

"Giving is Caring: Understanding Donation Behavior through Email." (with Yelena Mejova, Ingmar Weber, and Venkata Rama Kiran Garimella) Proceedings of the 17th ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (CSCW), 2014.

Every day, thousands of people make donations to humanitarian, political, environmental, and other causes, a large amount of which occur on the Internet. The solicitations for support, the acknowledgment of a donation and the discussion of corresponding issues are often conducted via email, leaving a record of these social phenomena. In this paper, we describe a comprehensive large-scale data-driven study of donation behavior. We analyze a two-month anonymized email log from several perspectives motivated by past studies on charitable giving: (i) demographics, (ii) user interest, (iii) external timerelated factors and (iv) social network influence. We show that email captures the demographic peculiarities of different interest groups, for instance, predicting demographic distributions found in US 2012 Presidential Election exit polls. Furthermore, we find that people respond to major national events, as well as to solicitations with special promotions, and that social connections are the most important factor in predicting donation behavior. Specifically, we identify trends not only for individual charities and campaigns, but also for high-level categories such as political campaigns, medical illnesses, and humanitarian relief. Thus, we show the extent to which large-scale email datasets reveal human donation behavior, and explore the limitations of such analysis.

Working Papers

Policy and Performance in the New Deal Realignment: Evidence from Old Data and New Methods (with Devin Caughey and Eric Schickler)

The partisan transformation of the 1930s--40s is traditionally considered the quintessential policy-based electoral realignment. Recently, however, Achen and Bartels (2016) have challenged the policy bases of the New Deal realignment, suggesting that it was driven not by voters' policy preferences but by their accumulated retrospective evaluations of the economy. We evaluate Achen and Bartels's critique using a combination of old data and new methods. Based on public opinion polls fielded 1936--52, we find large policy differences between voters who switched parties between presidential elections and voters who remained loyal. Using a group-level IRT measure of mass economic ideology, we also find that in non-Southern states, shifts in presidential vote are predicted not only by state income growth but also by the (contemporaneous, lagged, or differenced) liberalism of the state public. In short, policy and performance drove the New Deal realignment. Moreover, the ideological basis of this realignment has proven durable: state liberalism circa 1940 predicts presidential results today at least as well as it did contemporaneous results. These results suggest that at least in highly ideological critical elections, policy preferences can play an important role in vote choice.

One Campaign Website, Multiple Constituencies: Ideological Repositioning from Primary to General Election (with Ryan Ryan Hübert and Christine Kuang)

To successfully win reelection representatives must manage multiple constituencies, successfully raising money from friends, deterring or defeating primary challenges from more extreme fellow partisans, and winning a majority among more moderate voters in the general election. Thus, candidates both require the support of groups with differing ideologies and have a strong incentive to send different ideological signals to different constituencies if they wish to be elected. While there is a voluminous literature that estimates the ideology of elected officials based on their legislative voting record, roll call votes are too sparse to estimate repositioning over a short campaign period, are based on agenda-setting that highly constrains the signals an incumbent can send, and lack information about challenger ideology, a key feature of any spatial model of electoral competition. Partnering with the Internet Archive, we collected House and Senate candidate websites on a weekly basis throughout the entire course of the 2014 campaign from January to the general election. In this paper, we use the text of campaign websites to measure whether candidates shift to the center between the primary and general elections

Raising the Roof Next Door? The Invisible Ceiling and NIMBYism (with Alexander Sahn)

Cities can increase the supply of housing by building out or building up. While states have generally allowed urban sprawl, many local governments have adopted height restrictions and other zoning laws that place an invisible ceiling on the supply of housing, both in the city center and in the surrounding suburbs. Despite slowing economic growth, increasing economic inequality, and making housing increasingly unaffordable, why do voters support these policies? To better understand public opinion, we conduct a series of survey experiments showing that voters may like construction in general, but have a "not in my backyard" (NIMBY) attitude. Across three different experiments, we find relatively high levels of abstract support for new construction, but mention their neighborhood and support for building height restrictions increases by 8 percentage points on average. Both voters' NIMBYism and preferences for subsidized, market rate, or luxury housing reflect partisan polarization. Yet ideological concerns remain secondary to homeowners' self-interest in their home values. In total, our findings suggest that policy change will not occur at the local level and city governments will continue to block new construction and increase homeowners' economic rents.