Do individual differences alter the effects of the political environment on turnout? Specifically, does a genetic sensitivity to threat condition the way that exposure to political contention affects turnout? Recent work in the genopolitics literature suggests taht the answer is "yes" and that fundamental differences between us interact with our environmental exposures to affect our propensity to vote. However, previous work has not tested the specific ways through which exposure to contention effects turnout, due in part to the assumption that - once demographics, political preferences, and political interest levels have been controlled for - the environment should have a uniform effect on people's decision. Consequently, little work has been tested which individual differences might alter the effect of environmental influences on an individual's decision.
This project will explore the relationship between political contention and turnout and will provide a political explanation for why genes have been shown to affect political outcomes. This study theorizes that individual differences in people's sensitivity to threat moderate the effects of living in a politically contentious environment. Competitive elections provide the opportunity for being exposed to contentious polictics. Some people may respond to the perceived threat with increase anxiety, while others are relatively unaffected. Differences in threat sensitivity and anxiety are in large part explained by biological differences, and therefore suggest that is is these same biological differences that predispose a person toward responding to political contention with increased anxiety. Furthermore, for these people, experiencing anxiety about politics will have the effect of suppressing their turnout.
This theory is tested using a laboratory experiment that varies respondents' exposure to political contention and measures their emotions based on their physiological repsonse to the experimetn treatment. Data about genetic and psychological predispositions toward threat sensitivity have already been measured for the experimental sample, which will allow me to measure differences in response to the treatment based on differences in threat sensitivity.
This research topic is extremely relevant in today's contentious poltical environment. Political polarization has intensified the consequences of people's emotional reactions to political disagreement, and it is important for political scientists to identify the causal mechanisms that relate political contention to political behavior.
Competitive elections are lauded as an essential component of a healthy democracy, in part because of the effects competition is thought to have on citizen interest, knowledge, and engagement. A citizenry that is motivated to participate because of the uncertainty and perceived importance of the outcome of the election is more likely to hold accountable the officials who seek to represent them. Yet, the media's portrayal of competitive elections is one in which citizens become more emotional about politics without necessarily becoming more interested or informed, and many people report aversion to the degree of discord in our society. My dissertation explores the role of emotion in mediating the effect of political competition on the decision to turn out and vote. I develop a theory in which emotional activation with the political sphere mediates the effect of exposure to political competition on voter turnout. On average, people are more emotionally engaged with politics when they live in politically competitive communities. The heightened salience of politics and increased exposure to political contention in these areas makes it more difficult to avoid politics completely, even for those people who remain cognitively disengaged with politics. This emotional engagement with politics in turn affects a person's propensity to participate in politics, but the exact nature of this relationship depends on the effects of a person's sensitivity to, and perception of, the degree to which their political environment is socially stressful and threatening. In the first part of my dissertation, I use data from the 2008 National Election Study to test the theory that competition affects people's emotional evaluations of the presidential candidates. Consistent with previous work that demonstrates that patterns of emotional response to campaign advertisements are different for Republicans and Democrats, I find that state-level electoral competition polarizes Republicans' emotional evaluations while tempering those of Democrats. However, emotional engagement with politics is likely interspersed within a person's daily engagement or disengagement with politics and previous studies of the role of emotion in politics have been unable to capture unobtrusive observational data about emotional engagement. Thus, I collect a unique dataset derived from the status messages posted by almost two million Facebook users in the United States during the 2008 election. This data allows us to study for the first time the spatial and temporal distribution of reports of emotion to politics and political campaigns. I find a role for both emotional and cognitive engagement with politics in mediating the relationship between living in a competitive "battleground" state and self-reported voter turnout. To further test these findings, I conducted a field experiment in the 2010 Congressional elections on a genetically informative sample of Californians. Half of the sample was mailed a postcard designed to make salient the degree of competition and uncertainty in the electoral environment. Those users who are genetically predisposed toward heightened stress sensitivity were less likely to turnout and vote, but only when they received the treatment postcard. NSF funding has also facilitated me in extending these results by testing them in the laboratory. While self-reported emotion has many merits, psychologists know that much of our emotional response is outside of our conscious awareness, and is thus better measured with objective instead of subjective measures. One of the implications of the theory I develop in my dissertation is that some people should be physiologically more sensitive to the level of political competition in their environment. The use of physiological equipment to measure emotion requires extensive training. The NSF money provided me the opportunity to receive this high-quality training so that I could execute my own experiments. Furthermore, the grant allowed me to purchase equipment that will be used to test the hypotheses that derive from the first part of my dissertation. I am currently in the final stages of designing a laboratory experiment that varies respondentsâ€™ exposure to political contention and measures their emotions based on their physiological response to the experiment treatment. When I pair the results of the experiment with data about genetic and psychological predispositions toward threat sensitivity I will be able to study differences in response to the treatment based on differences in threat sensitivity. The execution of this experiment is scheduled for early 2013. My research topic is extremely relevant in todayâ€™s contentious political environment. Political polarization has intensified the consequences of peopleâ€™s emotional reactions to political disagreement, and it is important for political scientists to identify the causal mechanisms that relate political contention to political behavior. My dissertation results will lead us to 1) better understand what aspects of the environment are most likely to trigger emotional reactions; 2) deduce what sorts of institutional changes might be most effective to encourage people to vote and 3) better understand how to frame political mobilization to make it resonate with the politically disengaged.