Selected Research

Unmasking government competence: experiments on performance voting in an age of Interdependence

Elements in Experimental Political Science

Cambridge University Press (under contract)

Co-authored with J. Scott Matthews

 

​Our globalized society poses a vexing challenge for voters seeking to hold officials accountable for their past actions. Put simply, as performance here becomes tied to performance over there, voters struggle to identify signals of their government’s contribution to wellbeing. Hart and Matthews explore how voters cope with this problem of interdependence and what it means for representative democracy. Using experimental tests requiring voters to judge performance in settings that obscure incumbent competence, they identify a strong tendency to benchmark -- to reward incumbents, capable or otherwise, who outperform a peer. This is an effective mechanism for accountability in some contexts, but bad comparisons can lead to poor judgments. Against the turn to “mundane realism” in experimental design, Hart and Matthews also argue for a renewed focus on abstract experimentation in the social sciences. They explain how abstract designs can be an important source of new generalizations about democratic accountability.

Economic Voting: A Campaign-Centered Theory

Cambridge University Press. 2016.

I argue that electoral candidates, by emphasizing or deemphasizing economic issues in campaign messages, condition voters’ willingness to hold governments responsible for past economic performance. Extant economic voting theory, by contrast, holds that candidate strategy has little influence over when and to what extent economic voting occurs. I test my campaign-centered theory against this conventional wisdom by analyzing the effect of televised economic ads on vote choices in eight national elections in six countries. I find that the activating effects of economic ads is systematic and generalizable. More broadly, by reevaluating the psychology of economic voting in light of extensive research on psychological priming, I help explain a broad class of elections the conventional model treats as anomalous.

Reviews: Matthew Singer (2019) Perspectives on Politics; Julia Azari (2018) Political Science Quarterly (2018); Melissa Michelson (2017), CHOICE

Awards: 2017 William M. LeoGrande Prize, American University

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​​Unmasking accountability: Judging performance in an interdependent world

Journal of Politics forthcoming, with J. Scott Matthews

As local conditions come to reflect extra-local forces, signals of government competence grow more obscure. Yet we know relatively little about how voters evaluate incumbent performance in the context of interdependence. We use a series of simulated voting tasks to examine three theoretical possibilities: blind retrospection, rational discounting, and benchmarking. Across five experiments requiring voters to judge performance in a setting that obscures incumbent competence, we find consistent evidence of benchmarking: subjects rewarded incumbents, capable
or otherwise, who outperformed a peer. Benchmarking was evident in information processing, information seeking, and in both hard and easy tasks. The disposition to benchmark was also generally robust to the availability of information that clarified incumbent competence. Our findings advance the study of performance voting, especially its underlying mechanisms, and raise questions about the availability of performance information across domains of government action. [pdf] [supplemental materials]

Priming under fire: Reevaluating the classic media priming hypothesis

Journal of Politics 2014, with Joel Middleton

Past studies of media priming failed to recognize certain design confounds, and recent doubts have arisen about their findings. We conduct a survey experiment to evaluate this hypothesis with an unconfounded design. Our findings are the first unequivocal evidence of the media priming hypothesis. [pdf] [supplemental materials] [TESS grant and replication data]

​​Can candidates activate or deactivate the economic vote? Evidence from two Mexican elections

Journal of Politics 2013

Do electoral campaigns affect the strength of the economic vote? Against the conventional expectation that candidates have little influence, I show that political communications systematically condition voters’ willingness to hold candidates responsible for past economic performance. By bringing the priming approach to economic voting, I highlight the importance of communication strategy and demonstrate the power of campaigns to overcome structural conditions thought to hamstring electoral candidates. [pdf] [supplemental materials]

Unmasking accountability: Judging performance in an interdependent world

Under review, with J. Scott Matthews

As local conditions come to reflect extra-local forces, signals of government competence grow more obscure. Yet we know relatively little about how voters evaluate incumbent performance in the context of interdependence. We use a series of simulated voting tasks to examine three theoretical possibilities: blind retrospection, rational discounting, and benchmarking. Across five experiments requiring voters to judge performance in a setting that obscures incumbent competence, we find consistent evidence of benchmarking -- subjects rewarded incumbents, capable
or otherwise, who outperformed a peer. Benchmarking was evident in information processing, information seeking, and in both hard and easy tasks. The disposition to benchmark was also generally robust to the availability of information that clarified incumbent competence. Our findings advance the study of performance voting, especially its underlying mechanisms, and raise questions about the availability of performance information across domains of government action.

Clarity of responsibility and the mediating role of political campaigns

Working paper, with J. Scott Matthews

Why does the clarity of responsibility thesis account so well for aggregate-level patterns of economic voting when, at the micro level, voters typically fail to act as the theory predicts? This paper begins to address the discordant findings between cross-national and individual-level studies of performance voting. Specifically, we argue that the political and economic structures thought to shape performance voting behavior do so only indirectly, via their influence on political elites. Simple campaign cues about the economy--not complex signal-extraction calculations--mediate the oft-identifi ed clarity of responsibility e ffect. [pdf]

Death of the partisan? Globalization and taxation in South America, 1990-2006

Comparative Political Studies 2010

Correcting the relative lack of attention to the revenue side of public finance, this article examines to what extent globalization constrains partisan tax policy. The results demonstrate that partisanship is a reliable indicator of tax revenue in the "neoliberal" era. However, ideological concerns for growth versus equity drive an unexpected revenue gap. [pdf]

​​Access to water improves boys' educational attainment, not girls': Evidence from Tanzania and Uganda

Working paper with Mukhaye Muchimuti

Although policy makers suggest that improved water access will raise educational attainment among women, this claim has not been tested rigorously. This paper aims to fill this gap by evaluating the effect of water access on girls' educational attainment. Based on analysis of longitudinal data in Tanzania and Uganda, we find that changes in water proximity drive educational attainment among boys but not girls.  [pdf]