Ideological campaign rhetoric and its effects



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Prior research has focused on how irrelevant ideology is to American politics. We know that people do not now, nor have they ever, thought about politics in ideological terms, if that means having a well-developed political belief system (Converse 1964; Luskin 1987; Smith 1989; cf. Nie, Verba, and Petrocik 1979). Yet political elites still use ideological terms and so, in lesser degree and with less meaning, do ordinary citizens. Broadly speaking, this dissertation examines the interaction between these phenomena: citizens’ limited ideological understanding of ideological terms and elites’ rhetorical use of them in campaigns. It begins with a theoretical discussion of mass ideology and then moves to an examination of a unique database of over 2,000 Senate ads from 1988-96. Merging the ad data with individual-level data from the 1988-92 National Election Study’s Senate Election Study, I argue and demonstrate that candidates have electoral incentives to misuse ideological terms, that such misuse leads to misperceptions of candidate ideology, “incorrect” voting, and diminished participation. In short, instead of providing clearer choices, as we might imagine, ideological campaigns confuse and frustrate American voters.