September 29, 2015

Static Stability and Evolving Constraint

Preference Stability and Ideological Structure in the Mass Public

Prominent accounts of public opinion argue that citizens' preferences are unstable, with stated desires on policies varying wildly from survey to survey, and ideologically incoherent, with preferences on multiple policies evidencing little or no structure. In the aggregate, these findings suggest that many voters are not capable of fulfilling their normative role in the democratic system. In this article, we challenge this conventional view and argue that the apparent instability and incoherence among the public are both overstated and outdated. Using panel surveys from the 1970s, 1990s, and 2010s, we conduct a multi-trait multi-method (MTMM) confirmatory factor analysis of citizen preferences in multiple issue areas. Our results reveal a surprising degree of preference stability in all three time periods across many policy domains. Further, our results reveal increasing levels of ideological thinking over time and that these patterns of stability and coherence hold across subpopulations defined by levels of sophistication.

2016. American Politics Research 44 (3): 415-447. With Melanie Freeze.
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