Political Repositioning (with Robert Van Houweling). Book project. Under advance contract, Princeton University Press.
This book examines how voters respond to politicians who change positions on policy issues, and what this means for representation in democracies.
Political Repositioning: A Conjoint Analysis (with Robert Van Houweling)
A persistent puzzle in contemporary American politics is the polarization of political officeholders. One possible cause is the two-stage electoral process in the United States, which requires candidates to secure a nomination from their party before contesting a general election. We offer a theory of the costs that candidates incur when they shift positions on policy issues, and study how these costs influence the strategic choices that candidates make during primaries and general elections. We test our theory with conjoint experiments, in which voters choose between candidates who vary randomly on many characteristics, including their record of policy positions. We find that repositioning brings substantial electoral costs. As a consequence, public opinion must be running nearly 70-30 in favor of one side of an issue before politicians who previously took the other side will find it electorally optimal to switch. We conclude that, if candidates emerge from primaries with different positions, the electorate itself will provide strong disincentives for the candidates to converge during the general election. Our findings have important implications for representation in democracies. Current version: April 2016.
Alliance Terms and Audience Costs (with Joshua Fjelstul, Jessica Weeks, and Dan Reiter)
Recent research has shown that leaders who violate military alliance agreements would suffer domestic audience costs. We argue that such audience costs depend crucially on two factors: the terms of the alliance agreement and beliefs about who initiated conflict. We distinguish between general alliances, which obligate allies to fight together regardless of who started the war, and defensive alliances, which only require action if one of the signatories was attacked. We hypothesize that general alliances expose leaders to larger audience costs, on average, because they require assistance in a wider range of circumstances, but the difference should vanish if audiences think their ally was the victim of aggression. We designed an original survey experiment to test these hypotheses. Our data show that both the terms of the agreement and the identity of the initiator profoundly affect audience costs, primarily by altering expectations about the reputational costs of abandoning an ally. Current version: September 2015.
Industry, Self-Interest, and Individual Preferences over Trade Policy (with Sungmin Rho)
Do voters have economically self-interested preferences about trade policy? Despite considerable research on this question, no consensus has emerged. We argue that scholars can gain new insight by analyzing attitudes toward protectionism for specific industries, rather than sentiment toward free trade in general. Accordingly, we develop industry-specific measures of protectionism, incorporate them into original public opinion polls, and use the data to test several economic theories. We find surprisingly little evidence that the preferences of citizens fit the predictions of standard models, including Stolper-Samuelson, Ricardo-Viner, and “new new” models of trade with heterogeneous firms. These findings compel us to rethink the sources of public opinion about trade policy. Current version: April 2015.
Human Rights, Democracy, and Alliance Formation (with Jessica Weeks)
How do liberal democracies choose their alliance partners? Much previous research has focused on the idea that democracies are attracted to other democracies. In this paper, we argue that respect for human rights exerts an even stronger effect on the selection of alliance partners. We test our argument by conducting a large-scale experiment, in which we presented U.S. citizens with pairs of countries that varied randomly on four dimensions: human rights, political regime, reputation, and religion. After describing each pair of countries, we asked which one the respondent would prefer as a U.S. ally. The effects of human rights were striking: overall, citizens showed a 32-point preference for allying with countries that respected human rights. Importantly, this effect held even when the potential ally was nondemocratic. Democracy, reputation, and religion also proved consequential, albeit to a lesser degree. We also distinguished and tested three causal mechanisms: perceptions of reliability, fears of entrapment, and concerns about morality. These mechanisms collectively accounted for most of the treatment effects, with reliability playing the most important role. Our findings have important implications for the study of alliances and for foreign policy in liberal democracies. Current version: August 2014. Currently offline while undergoing revisions.
How Does the U.N. Security Council Influence Public Opinion (with Dustin Tingley)
This paper examines the effect of the UN Security Council on public support for war. We distinguish three reasons why a UNSC resolution that authorizes military action could influence public opinion. Citizens might interpret the resolution as a signal that military force is warranted; as an indication that other countries will share the military burden; or as a public promise that ought to be upheld. We designed an experiment to estimate whether and how UNSC resolutions affect the U.S. public mood for war. We found that U.S. citizens were substantially more willing to support war when the UNSC had authorized a mission than when it had not. Surprisingly, though, the UNSC did not generate this effect by changing people’s beliefs about the merits of war, or by suggesting that the U.S. would pay less as a result of burden sharing by other UN members. Instead, our evidence was most consistent with the hypothesis that UNSC resolutions are public commitments, which citizens feel obligated to fulfill as long as other countries do the same. These findings have significant implications for research about public support for war, and about the effect of international bodies on domestic politics. Current version: November 2012.
Political Pledges as Credible Commitments (with Robert Van Houweling)
How can interest groups secure credible policy commitments from politicians? Previous research has argued that groups screen politicians to identify true believers, and they enforce commitments through repeated interactions. We argue that political pledges provide another solution to the commitment problem. Pledges tie the hands of politicians by involving voters in the enforcement process. If politicians violate a group’s pledge, even voters who disagree with the pledge will carry out a punishment. Using survey experiments, we show that the “No New Taxes” pledge commits signatories by significantly increasing the electoral cost of advocating higher taxes. We also explain how the pledge incentivizes even nonsignatories to avoid raising taxes. By deterring politicians from responding to changes in public opinion, pledges can contribute to non-representative policies. Current version: March 2012.
Candidate Repositioning (with Robert Van Houweling)
How do voters respond when politicians change positions over time? The answer is fundamental to understanding candidate competition, election outcomes, and representation in democracies. We develop a model in which repositioning affects voter behavior through two channels. First, repositioning causes voters to discount a candidate’s current policy pronouncements when judging their proximity to the candidate. Second, repositioning prompts voters to draw negative inferences about a candidate’s character. We test the model by administering survey-based experiments to a representative sample of 7,495 U.S. adults. Our data confirm that repositioning changes voter perceptions about both proximity and character, and that repositioning is costly on average. We then use our data to derive the optimal strategies for candidates. Our equilibrium analysis shows how voters, by reacting negatively to repositioning, deter politicians from adjusting their positions when public opinion changes or new policy-relevant information comes to light. Current version: October 2012.
How does international law affect preferences and beliefs about foreign policy? I investigate this question by offering the first-ever experimental analysis of treaty commitments. The experiments, embedded in interviews with U.S. voters and British policymakers, reveal three patterns. First, international law changes preferences and expectations. Individuals are far more likely to oppose policies that would violate international law than to oppose otherwise identical policies that would not trammel upon the law. Moreover many observers, including expert policymakers, anticipate that signatories to treaties will behave differently from non-signatories. Second, these effects arise, at least in part, via a reputational mechanism. By publicizing international commitments and embedding them in a legal framework, treaties raise the reputational ante, making it more costly to renege. Third, the effect of international law is additive, not absolute. If the material or moral case for violating international law is sufficiently strong, large proportions of voters and policymakers will advocate breaking the law and will expect foreign leaders to do the same. Thus, the experiments reported here reveal both the power and the limits of international law.
This paper examines how citizens form preferences about compliance with international agreements. The paper argues that compliance creates domestic winners and losers through two channels, adjustment and reputation. It then shows that the preferences of citizens vary systematically with their exposure to the adjustment costs and reputational benefits of compliance. The relationship between personal interests and policy preferences holds mainly for the most informed portion of the electorate, though, whereas the preferences of less knowledgeable citizens are harder to reconcile with self-interest. This finding has potentially broad implications for models of policy choice.
Brand Names and the Organization of Mass Belief Systems (with Paul Sniderman).
Previous research finds that the political views of citizens exhibit minimal constraint: it is difficult to predict the position citizens take on one issue, given their position on another. We show that constraint is much higher than previously recognized. In the world of real politics, parties and elites attach brand names (e.g. "Democratic" and "Republican") to issues, thereby sending signals that help citizens respond coherently to an array of questions. Existing studies have measured policy preferences without presenting political brand names. A sequence of experiments supports four conclusions: political brand names (1) markedly increase constraint; (2) enhance constraint across rather than within policy agendas; (3) promote constraint among the politically unsophisticated as effectively as among the sophisticated; and (4) generate ideological consistency as effectively as ideological brand names.
This paper challenges an increasingly common claim about the relationship between domestic politics and foreign policy. Many political scientists argue that, in a democracy, domestic audiences constrain leaders to honor international commitments. I explain why this argument depends on three assumptions that are unlikely to hold in a wide range of cases. I then offer an alternative theory in which domestic audiences sometimes make compliance less rather than more likely, and I test it with a unique collection of public opinion polls about foreign debt in Argentina. The data reveal that domestic audiences prevented Argentina from suspending debt payments in 1999 but had the opposite effect two years later, when they contributed to the largest default in financial history. The results confirm the existence of a conditional, rather than direct, relationship between democratic accountability and compliance, and they suggest an important avenue for future research: investigating who favors default and when they are likely to become electorally decisive.
This paper argues that international commercial agreements can enhance the credibility of trade liberalization by mitigating two problems – adverse selection and time-inconsistency – that sometimes lead investors to doubt the longevity of an otherwise well-designed commercial policy. Using stock market data from Mexico, the paper offers strong evidence that NAFTA made trade liberalization more credible to domestic and foreign investors. The findings should be of interest not only to scholars concerned about the consequences of international institutions, but also to policy makers who are opening their economies to foreign trade.
The Morality of Secession (M.Phil. Thesis, Oxford University, 1994)
In this monograph I develop a normative theory of state secession. My argument, grounded in contemporary liberal political philosophy, proceeds in three steps. First, I demonstrate that the liberal commitment to freedom of association implies presumption in favor of secession, which can be overturned only by showing that the act of secession inflicts morally significant harm on others. Next, I specify the conditions under which secessionists could inflict harm on others by breaking political obligations or violating property rights. Finally, I indicate when an appeal to necessity -- an argument that secession itself is necessary to avert moral harm -- can override political obligations and property rights. To illustrate my arguments, I draw on cases of successful and attempted secession in the 19th and 20th centuries. A revised version of chapter 3 is presented in "Political Obligation and Political Secession," which argues that political obligations arising from consent and fair play can undermine the legitimacy of secession.