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An often-forgotten passage of Philip Converse’s classic essay on mass belief systems introduced the concept of an issue public—a segment of voters that has crystallized attitudes about a particular topic. Converse thought that most citizens rendered political judgments on the basis of social groupings—what scholars have come to call “political identities”—but he allowed that there could be exceptions. Some people deeply care about particular topics, and these might substantially ground their belief systems. This simple idea could provide an important codicil to recent work that cast citizens’ political behavior in a negative light. For instance: do citizens hold elites accountable for the policy positions they adopt? No (e.g. Lenz 2012)—but issue publics might. Do they respond to campaign efforts to inform and influence then? Not generally (e.g. Kalla & Broockman 2017)—but issues publics might. In the rare instances where Democrats and Republicans have common goals, can they put aside animosities to work together? No (Mason 2018)—but again, issue publics just might.
An obstacle to assessing the significance of issue publics—how widespread they are and how much they shape political outcomes—is that identifying membership in issue publics is surprisingly difficult. As recent studies document, closed-ended survey measures in which people report how important specific issues are to them personally are vulnerable to substantial acquiescence bias. They also limit measurement to a menu of issues that researchers pre-specify as being potentially important. In practice, this means studies often focus on issues that are currently focal in public discourse while neglecting issues that are not in the news—but which might be important to slices of the population
Here, we assess an alternative recall-based (rather than recognition-based) measure of issue public membership. We ask survey respondents to report—in open-ended format—if there is a specific political issue that is particularly important to them. Then, after a delay of several weeks, we invite respondents to participate in a second survey that gauges how heavily the issue they mentioned weighs on their political considerations. The results are striking. First, most respondents can name a specific issue that is important to them, though the issues named are oftentimes more specific than those that would be captured by traditional closed-ended measures. Second, many respondents report the same issue as being personally important, even after a substantial delay. Third, the spontaneously-named issue carries exceptional weight in political judgments. We arrive at this third conclusion in several different ways, the most innovative of which is to incorporate the spontaneously-named issue—plus a range of other issues—in a conjoint experiment where respondents evaluate hypothetical political candidates on the basis of their personal background, plus stances on an array of issues.
In sum, these results suggest that, partly because issue public membership has been measured in inadequate ways, public opinion research has arrived at overly gloomy conclusions about citizens’ capacity to engage in issue-based voting.