Selected Works in Progress

The Minimal Effects of Making Local News Free: Evidence from a Field Experiment

Author: Andrew Trexler

Abstract: The collapse of local newspapers has elicited broad scholarly concern about citizens' knowledge of and engagement with local politics. As newspapers struggle to survive, many have turned to digital subscription revenue, retreating behind online paywalls in the process---which constitute barriers to consuming local political information that is essential for democracy. Does making local news free to access induce the consumption of local news? And, if so, does that consumption produce salutary effects on citizen knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors? I address these questions with evidence from a field experiment that randomly provides a free digital subscription for a major North Carolina paper to a probability-based sample of registered voters for two months around the 2022 general election. I find that the free subscriptions did not meaningfully increase consumption on its own, and further that secondary interventions did not produce meaningful changes in political knowledge or a range of political attitudes and behaviors. These findings suggest that price is but one of several barriers to consuming local political information. Disparities in citizen knowledge and engagement with local politics are unlikely to be addressed by making local journalism free.

Status: Under Review


Local News Reporting and Mass Attitudes on Infrastructure Investment

Authors: Andrew Trexler and Megan Mullin

Abstract: A growing body of research documents how newspaper closures and nationalization of news undermine political accountability and local fiscal and policy performance in the United States. We extend this work to examine political impacts from the level of information content in local news, which has been jeopardized by reductions in newsroom staffing. To understand how information content affects public response to news coverage of a local issue, we focus on the case of preventive spending on infrastructure maintenance and repair. Inefficiently low levels of infrastructure investment are often attributed to low public knowledge about the risk of failure events. In a pre-registered survey experiment, we test how the information content in a news article (investigative versus event-driven reporting) affects support for infrastructure investment across two different types of infrastructure risk (nuisance versus disaster failure). For both types of risk, we find that more content-rich reporting, whether investigative or event-driven, increases public support for preventive spending and imposes accountability penalties on local leaders who fail to invest in prevention.

Status: Revise & Resubmit

An Ideology by Any Other Name

Authors: Andrew Trexler and Christopher Johnston

Abstract: The terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ are prominent features of political discourse in the United States, and many citizens choose to identify with one of these ideological labels. Yet, many citizens do not fit comfortably in either of these categories, and comparatively little is known about the breadth and importance of other ideological labels in the mass public. We pose a simple but novel survey question to a large sample of survey respondents (n = 4,655) to measure self-identification with up to 14 different ideological labels, and trace the associations of this self-labeling with individual differences and political attitudes. We find that identification with alternative ideological labels is widespread and contains important information about political attitudes that common survey questions on ideology do not capture. Further, the co-occurrence of multiple ideological identities conveys valuable information about both deviations from, and extremity along, the conventional left-right spectrum. Our findings provide a foundation for continued scholarship on ideology beyond the confines of the liberal-conservative framework.

Status: Revise & Resubmit

More Than a Feeling: Policy Feedback Effects of Pandemic Election Reforms

Authors: Andrew Trexler, Marayna Martinez, and Mallory SoRelle

Abstract: The pandemic posed a unique problem: how could states facilitate the 2020 election while protecting election integrity and public health? States responded to this challenge differently, creating a mosaic of voting policy changes before the 2020 election. These changes unfolded in different contexts: for some, mail-in voting was familiar, for others, it was untested. Concurrently, a major-party presidential candidate argued these reforms allowed for the election to be “stolen.” Given this unprecedented confluence of events, changes to election law could be viewed by states’ citizens as an effort to protect (or undermine) public health, election integrity, or ballot access, or to gain partisan advantage. While scholars have explored how election reforms affect voter turnout, we know less about how state-level electoral policies influence people’s political efficacy and trust in government and how political context and voter characteristics condition those effects. In particular, partisan norms surrounding voting and trust in government may lead to stark differences in resultant political efficacy. Employing a policy feedback framework, our analysis combines original data on state changes to election procedures with 2020 ANES survey data to understand the context-specific effects of electoral reforms on individual-level political efficacy. We find little evidence that electoral reforms affect political efficacy and trust in government overall. However, we find some evidence that partisanship is critical to understanding the true relationship between electoral reform and political efficacy.

Status: Working Paper


Misleading Polls in the Media: The Social Consequences of Survey Clickbait

Authors: Matthew Graham, D. Sunshine Hillygus, and Andrew Trexler

Abstract: In today's competitive information environment, clicks are the currency of the digital media landscape. Clickbait journalism attempts to entice attention with provocative and sensational headlines, but what are the implications when public opinion polls are the hook? Does the use of survey clickbait---news stories that make misleading claims about public opinion---have implications for perceptions of the public, journalists, or the polling industry? In two survey experiments, we find that exposure to apolitical survey clickbait undermines perceptions of the public's capacity for democratic citizenship. At the same time, we find no evidence that survey clickbait damages the reputations of the media or polling industry, highlighting the perverse incentives for the media to use low quality polls or to misrepresent polling results to drive traffic.

Status: Accepted at Public Opinion Quarterly.

Aimed Emotions in American Presidential Politics

Abstract: Emotional appeals are essential tools for political candidates to motivate supporters, donors, and voters. Prior research has demonstrated the distinct behavioral consequences of discrete emotions, such as anger, anxiety, and enthusiasm. Do political candidates take advantage of these distinctions in their communication strategies? In this paper, I use supervised machine learning to classify emotional content in debate transcripts and contemporaneous tweets of American presidential candidates in the 2016 and 2020 elections, and show that candidates preference different emotional appeals in each communication medium. I argue that this behavior enables candidates to reap strategic benefits from two dissimilar audiences simultaneously.

Citation: Trexler, Andrew. 2023. "Aimed Emotions in American Presidential Politics." Journal of Information Technology & Politics. doi:10.1080/19331681.2023.2248111

Ungated: Author's Manuscript. The published version of record is available here.