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Student Projects

The Center for American Politics is preparing the next generation of scholars by supporting graduate students in their research. Below are some of the projects we have funded recently.

Taylor Carlson - Unpacking the Content of Spillover Effects in Get-Out-The-Vote Campaigns

Taylor Carlson (2019 PhD, First Position Assistant Professor at Washington University in St. Louis)

 How do social connections impact political engagement?  Past research in   American politics identified the important influence our peers have on our   participation in politics.  For example, encouraging one person in a   household to vote also increases the likelihood that others in that   household  will turn out to vote.  The reason driving the social contagion of   voting is up for debate. It could be that the social pressure of observing someone else close to you vote compels you to vote as well. However, it might also be a companion effect – when one person in the household decides to go to the polls, those in their household are able to share transportation costs on the way to the polls as well. Finally, others suggest that information sharing can be a crucial pathway through which political engagement spreads. As canvassers share information about an upcoming election or candidate with the target voter, that target voter might go on to share that information with those in their household later on.

Unpacking the mechanism through which GOTV spillover effects occur is difficult because everything that happens between a canvasser leaving a target voter’s doorstep and Election Day is generally unobservable. In this project, I unpack the information sharing through political discussion theory to assess the extent to which information changes as it flows from the campaign, to the target voter, to his or her social connections. I conduct a telephone game experiment on a nationally representative sample in which participants are randomly exposed to a GOTV postcard and asked to summarize it for another person. This analysis will allow us to gain a better understanding of which features of campaign messaging get transmitted to others.

Kristy Pathakis - Psychological Drivers of the Gender Gap in Political Opinion Reporting

Kristy Pathakis (Ph.D. Candidate)

Some groups are better represented than others in the American political system. My project expands our knowledge of the barriers that politically marginalized groups face beyond those that are external—income, education, etc—to the internal, psychological barriers that prevent some individuals from fully participating in politics. This project focuses on responses to public opinion surveys—a form of political participation that requires minimal effort. Given the minimal effort we would expect people to generally offer their opinions. However, the work I have conducted so far suggests that this assumption is incorrect in at least one way: politically underrepresented groups (e.g., women and minorities) are more likely than the politically dominant groups to provide non-opinion responses like, don’t know, to policy opinion questions. This appears to be true even when members of these groups are better informed and more politically active. 

 We  rely on the results of public opinion surveys to provide an accurate and unbiased picture of Americans’ views. If the results are biased by one group’s opinions, it is a potentially serious problem for democracy because those who craft policy may be doing so without a clear view of the public’s preferences. Beyond the direct importance of a potentially systematic gender/race gap in non-opinion responding to public opinion surveys, this research has important implications for political participation. If women and minorities are more hesitant than white men, even when asked to just report their opinions, it is likely that those psychological effects will be even more stark for forms of participation that require more assertiveness or confidence (e.g. campaigning for candidates, running for elected office). Theoretically, the psychological reasons for these gaps are unique, but they are linked by a foundational lack of a sense of belonging in politics. Using a variety of methods, including large, representative samples of Americans from well-established surveys such as the American National Election Study and the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, combined with survey experiments of my own design, I isolate the psychological mechanisms at work and demonstrate that policy-makers should be concerned with more than leveling the playing field from a resource perspective and also looking at socio-cultural solutions.

Liesel Spangler - Plural Governance: Race, Ethnicity, and Representation in the United States

Liesel Spangler (Ph.D. Candidate)

With support from the Center for American Politics I have been able to examine the consequences of the racial shift occurring in the United States as it directly tackles issues of diversity and political incorporation in the country. My research seeks to understand how legislators adjust their representation as their districts change from majority-type districts to districts where there is no racial or ethnic majority group (referred to as plurality districts). According to the 2015 American Community Survey estimates, there were eighty-six plurality districts, outnumbering black-majority districts and Latino-majority districts. These districts present new opportunities and challenges for the representation of racial and ethnic groups in the United States. I explore three different domains of within-district representation: political communication, constituency services, and district funding. My research demonstrates that as the country and its communities are diversifying, legislators respond to the changing demographics of their local constituencies. Given that plurality districts are likely to be a major feature of U.S. politics in the future, my future research agenda will explore other ways diverse communities change the nature of political representation.

The Center for American Politics funding was essential for my fieldwork in Houston, TX and Sacramento, CA. This fieldwork is critical to my research for a couple of reasons. It provided me with the opportunity to visit plurality districts so that I can better understand the communities I study. More importantly, the fieldwork allowed me to visit district offices and interview staffers. These interviews support my theory of the role that racial trust and cultural competence play in the adjustments of plurality legislators’ representation strategies as their districts become more racially and ethnically diverse.