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Beyond the Thermostat: A Theory of Public Opinion Change K. Elizabeth Coggins, James A. Stimson, Mary Layton Atkinson, and Frank R. Baumgartner 1
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Contents 1 A Theory and Model of Public Opinion Change 4 1.1 A Model of Aggregate Dynamics . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9 2 Research Design I: Developing Policy Specific Moods 13 3 Research Design II: Classification of Issues 16 4 The Evolution of Beliefs about Equality 27 5 Concluding Observations 46 A Appendix: The Composition of the Opinion Series i 2
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With the development of empirical estimation of aggregate public opinion (Stimson 1991) has come the need to explain why opinion moves as it does. By far the most successful of these explanations is the thermostatic model of Wlezien (1995) and Soroka and Wlezien (2010). The thermostatic model is a simple, yet very powerful, framework that connects government action to public opinion response. It is, in essence, a model of democracy. Functioning democratic institutions, the model suggests, require their publics to be decently well-informed about what policymakers actually do. Electorally- motivated politicians then pay close attention to resulting shifts in opinion. The public, thus, functions much like a common thermostat—expressing its preferences for warmer or cooler temperatures—and policy makers serve as the feedback unit, responding to those changing temperature preferences. The theory of thermostatic response is straightforward and elegant: when the public sends a signal to change the temperature, to turn up the heat, for example, policymakers respond. But as the policy temperature approaches the ideal temperature, the public’s signal for change reduces. The public adjusts its preferences for more spending downward when appropriations increase—and upward when appropriations decrease (Wlezien 1995). This negative feedback of policy on preferences is a critical piece of the thermostatic model—it is evidence of an informed public. In their well-known cross-national study, Soroka and Wlezien (2010) find the ther- mostatic model to be widely applicable across issue domains and institutional designs. Perhaps even more impressive, thermostatic response is evident beyond just small sectors of highly attentive citizens. Indeed, it is pervasive. Citizens of the U.S., U.K., and Canada send signals for change, and they get policy change in response. When the response goes too far in one direction, citizens send a new signal, and representatives dial back their ac- tions. Response varies across countries and across conditions, but the overarching message is unmistakable: representative democratic government works quite well. We now have the luxury of a much richer dataset of public opinion. And, with the development of individual longitudinal public opinion measures for more than 60 policy 3
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domains in the United States, we have a need to explain each of them. We formalize the thermostat for that purpose. In the process of applying it we discover that it is indeed useful and powerful for some very important cases. And we also discover that it has limits and does not apply to other cases. We develop an overarching theory of opinion
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