A hot thermostat and partisan vaccine backlash 📊 August 1, 2021
Is the public more liberal than when Biden took office? That’s one of two studies, and I also have a few links
This week’s newsletter has my coverage of some hot new political science data and a few links to other things I’ve been reading and working on.
Thing 1: A liberal mood
James Stimson is a political scientist most known for his estimates of the “public mood” — a measure of how liberal or conservative the public is on any given issue area (including all of them in aggregate). I wrote about this in 2017 when his data showed Americans had become more liberal than ever before. Then, we argued the shift left was a reaction to Donald Trump’s presidency, a continued manifestation of a longer-term trend by which the people react in a thermostatic manner against the party in power. The government moves too far to the left or right and the people turn the temperature up or down in search of moderation.
Well, Stimson’s newest numbers show the public drifted even further to the left between 2017 and 2020. Here’s a chart of the data courtesy of Matt Grossmann:
But where we go from here is a big question. As stated, the thermostatic model would predict a reversion in 2021 in the conservative direction. But the issue remains open; the public has not appeared very thermostatic on, say, immigration policy over the last year, and their demand for public spending is still very high. Here are two charts on that, one from Gallup and the other from NBC News:
My theory is that polarization has hardened public preferences for spending and the scope of government, which would reduce the magnitude of thermostatic shifts. We’ll wait to see if I’m right.
Thing 2: Would you contract covid-19 to own the libs?
A group of social scientists have a new study out in PNAS that attempts to measure whether exposing Republicans to messaging from elite party members would increase their likelihood of getting vaccinated. Turns out, as expected, that it does. Here is the figure from their study:
Unvaccinated Republicans who were exposed to the Republican elite endorsement reported 7.0% higher vaccination intentions than those who viewed the Democratic elite endorsement and 5.7% higher than those in the neutral control condition.
But there is also a backlash effect, with some Republicans becoming less likely to endorse vaccinations for other people if they are exposed to positive messaging from Democratic elites:
We also found evidence of backlash effects against Democratic elites: Republicans who viewed the Democratic elite endorsement reported they would be significantly less likely to encourage others to vaccinate and had more negative attitudes toward the vaccine, compared with those who viewed the Republican elite endorsement or the neutral control. These results demonstrate the relative advantage of cues from Republican elites—and the risks of messaging from Democrats currently in power—for promoting vaccination among the largest vaccine-hesitant subgroup in the United States.
I think both of these effects fit my priors, given what we know about affective polarization and partisan confirmation bias, but the latter finding really is troubling. How far are people willing to go to #OwnTheLibs?
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What I’m reading and writing
I’m reading John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed this week. It’s a delightful book: fun, insightful, and engaging. Not much more to ask for, really.
Finally, a solicitation: I’m working on a proposal for my next book on what political science can tell regular people about how they make decisions and how the world works. The book will naturally do a lot of myth-busting on popular misconceptions about how politics works: like the tired mobilization v persuasion debates. If you have anything that you wonder about and would like to read an empirical dive into, let me know. Anything is a good candidate for a fun middle chapter.
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