Theorists argue that deliberation promotes enlightenment and consensus, but scholars do not know how deliberation affects policy opinions. Using the deliberative democracy and public opinion literatures as a guide, I develop a theory of opinion updating where citizens who deliberate revise their prior beliefs, particularly when they encounter consensual messages. A key aspect of this model is that opinion strength moderates the deliberative opinion change process. In two separate propensity score analyses using panel survey data from a deliberative forum and cross-sectional surveys, I show how deliberation and discussion both affect opinions toward Social Security reform. However, deliberation differs from ordinary discussion in that participants soften strongly held views, encounter different perspectives, and learn readily. Thus, deliberation increases knowledge and alters opinions, but it does so selectively based on the quality and diversity of the messages as well as the willingness of participants to keep an open mind.
Issue voting concerns the extent to which citizens reward or punish elected officials for their actions or inaction on legislative issues. There are debates about styles of issue voting as well as whether it takes place in the United States, but nearly all theoretical models elevate the role of political knowledge. That is, voters must know where politicians stand on policy issues as well as their own positions. While there are a variety of ways citizens could learn about policy positions and actions, the mass media are presumed to play an important role. Yet, demonstrating the empirical linkages has been difficult in the past due to ever-present challenges with data and research designs. More research is needed to understand the various mechanisms underpinning representative democracy.
Researchers use survey experiments to establish causal effects in descriptively representative samples, but concerns remain regarding the strength of the stimuli and the lack of realism in experimental settings. We explore these issues by comparing three national survey experiments on Medicare and immigration with contemporaneous natural experiments on the same topics. The survey experiments reveal that providing information increases political knowledge and alters attitudes. In contrast, two real-world government announcements had no discernable effects, except among people who were exposed to the same facts publicized in the mass media. Even among this exposed subsample, treatment effects were smaller and sometimes pointed in the opposite direction. Methodologically, our results suggest the need for caution when extrapolating from survey experiments. Substantively, we find that many citizens are able to recall factual information appearing in the news but may not adjust their beliefs and opinions in response to this information.