My research focuses focuses on the roots of extremism and moderation in individuals’ attitudes. I discuss each of my major research projects in the subheadings below.

Please contact me for materials relating to any of these papers or projects.


Busby, Ethan, Kirk A. Hawkins, and Joshua R. Gubler. Forthcoming. “Framing and Blame Attribution in Populist Rhetoric”.  Journal of Politics. Replication data

Scholars have long known that the rhetoric of populist politicians is an important part of their appeal; however, less is known about how that rhetoric operates. Drawing on data from two large experiments conducted with American adults, we show that survey questions encouraging individuals to consider political problems within a dispositional blame frame activates latent populist attitudes, while an encouragement to consider these same problems in a situational blame frame does not. In our second experiment, we connect this framing change to voting intentions and find that subjects exposed to dispositional frames are more likely to express support for Donald Trump and less likely to express support for Hillary Clinton than subjects exposed to situational frames. Importantly, the impact of framing is contingent on pre-existing populist attitudes; subjects with moderate levels of populist attitudes are much more likely to demonstrate an increase in expressed populism and support for Trump.

Rothschild, Jacob, Adam Howat, Richard Shafranek, and Ethan Busby. 2018. “Pigeonholing Partisans: Mass Stereotypes of Party Supporters and Partisan Polarization”. Political Behavior. Replication data.

What comes to mind when people think about rank-and-file party supporters? What stereotypes do people hold regarding ordinary partisans, and are these views politically consequential? We utilize open-ended survey items and structural topic modeling to document stereotypes about rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans. Many subjects report stereotypes consistent with the parties’ actual composition, but individual differences in political knowledge, interest, and partisan affiliation predict their specific content. Respondents varied in their tendency to characterize partisans in terms of group memberships, issue preferences, or individual traits, lending support to both ideological and identity-based conceptions of partisanship. Most importantly, we show that partisan stereotype content is politically significant: individuals who think of partisans in a predominantly trait-based manner – that is, in a way consistent with partisanship as a social identity – display dramatically higher levels of both affective and ideological polarization.

Busby, Ethan and James N. Druckman. 2018. Football and Public Opinion: A Partial Replication and Extension“. Journal of Experimental Political ScienceReplication data.

Do events irrelevant to politics, such as the weather and sporting events, affect political opinions? A growing experimental literature suggests that such events can matter. However, extant experimental evidence may over-state irrelevant event effects; this could occur if these studies happen to focus on particular scenarios where irrelevant event effects are likely to occur. One way to address this possibility is through replication, which is what we do. Specifically, we replicate an experimental study that showed the outcome of a college football game can influence presidential approval. Our results partially replicate the previous study and suggest the impact is constrained to a limited set of outcome variables. The findings accentuate the need for scholars to identify the conditions under which irrelevant effects occur. While the effects clearly can occur, there relevance to politics remains unclear.

Busby, Ethan, James N. Druckman, and Alexandria Fredendall. 2017. “The Political Relevance of Irrelevant Events”. Journal of Politics 79(1): 346-350. Replication Data

Do events irrelevant to politics affect citizens’ political opinions? A growing literature suggests that such events (e.g., athletic competitions, shark attacks) do in fact shape political preferences. We present an experiment that largely replicates a widely noted irrelevant event effect. Specifically, we find that the outcome of a sporting event (i.e., a football game) affects presidential approval and likely does so by affecting individuals’ moods. We also show that the effect is short-lived.

Busby, Ethan, D.J. Flynn, and James N. Druckman. 2018. “Studying Framing Effects on Political Preferences: Existing Research and Lingering Questions.” Doing News Framing Analysis II (Paul D’Angelo, ed.). New York: Routledge, p. 27-50.

This chapter reviews the state of framing research, noting strengths, weaknesses, and unexplored areas of this literature.

Busby, Ethan C., David Doyle, Kirk A. Hawkins, Nina Wiesehomeier. 2018. “Activating populist attitudes: the role of corruption.” The ideational approach to populism: Concept, theory, and method.  (Kirk A. Hawkins, Ryan Carlin, Levi Littvay, and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, eds.). New York: Routledge.

Recent advances in the study of populism, particularly at the individual-level, have conclusively demonstrated the importance of elite framing for activating and directing latent populist attitudes among the electorate. Ideational work in this vein however, has yet to explain exactly how policy failure and the political context also incentivize populist behavior. We expect that policy failures that result from intentional misconduct are more likely to trigger a populist response than those resulting from negligence or external causes, and that such a response is likely to be greater when this type of corruption is endemic. We tested these theoretical expectations in two laboratory-based experiments: one on a student sample at Northwestern University in the United States, the other on a mixed student/resident sample at Oxford University in the United Kingdom.

Under review:

Bumps in a level playing field: Democratic consequences of equal status intergroup contact

Democratic societies often wrestle with ways to increase political tolerance and support for minority groups. One possible route to this support, as suggested by psychological research, is intergroup contact. However, what type of contact is most promising for encouraging majority groups to be more supportive of minorities? Research on intergroup contact proposes that equal status interactions between groups can promote more positivity towards outgroups and therefore bolster political support for those groups. However, a contrasting racial threat perspective suggests that equal status challenges majority groups and the privileges they experience under current social structures. This may, in turn, lead to decreased support for minority groups. I evaluate these two competing predictions, using a nationally representative survey and a lab experiment. In both sources of data, I find only support for the predictions of racial threat theory, raising significant questions about the role of equal status as explored by previous work. At best, equal status contact produces no increases in majority groups’ support for minorities. At worst, equal status contact can prompt a backlash, reducing majority groups’ positive feelings, policy support, and political tolerance towards minorities.

Anxiety problems or anger issues? A multi-country experiment on the emotional underpinnings of populism—with David Doyle, Kirk A. Hawkins, and Nina Wiesehomeier.

Scholars have started to apply theories of affective cognition to the study of populism, seeking to understand whether efforts to prime negative or positive affect can independently trigger or suppress populist attitudes. However, much remains unknown about what emotions are associated with populism, let alone whether they serve as independent triggers. Recent observational research suggests that populism primarily works through anger (Rico, Guinjoan, and Anduiza 2017), while other experimental research claims that it involves fear (Hameleers, Bos, and de Vreese 2016). We suggest that much of the confusion arises because populism associates itself with different substantive issues, and that these issues themselves evoke emotions that can be hard to disentangle from the impact of populist ideas. To test this explanation and provide a clearer understanding of the emotional underpinnings of populism, we perform a series of experiments that activate populist attitudes in stages. Each experiment, conducted on online Netquest samples (N=1200) in the United States, Spain, and the United Kingdom, first presents subjects with one of a short series of issues devoid of populist rhetoric (treatment 1), then exposes subjects to a populist framing of that issue (treatment 2). For each group, we record self-reported emotional states post-treatment, allowing us to tease apart which emotions are associated with each issue and populism. Experimental results suggest that different issues evoke different emotions, but that populist rhetoric adds a layer of anger. We end with a discussion of the implications of this work for the study of populism and affective politics more generally.

Ongoing research:

“Should You Stay away from Strangers? Conducting Experiments on the Political Consequences of Intergroup Contact” – Book project

Harmonious relationships between social groups – racial, ethnic, political, etc. – can provide democracies with important benefits (e.g., Barber 1984; Sullivan, Piereson, and Marcus 1982; Dahl 1989; Taylor 1994). As people readily provide tolerance and recognition to members of their own groups, the difficulty in these relationships lies in promoting these attitudes towards other social groups (outgroups). A common presumption in the social sciences is that contact between groups can produce the tolerance and support democratic theorists discuss; in fact, classic work in psychology on intergroup contact provides a number of conditions that should promote positive experiences with outgroups (Allport 1954). However, meta-analyses of this literature cannot definitively conclude which conditions matter most or if any are even necessary (Pettigrew and Tropp 2011; Paluck, Green, and Green 2018).  I argue there are two main problems with this work at present. First, much of it fails to consider the kinds of contact that exist in the real world (Dixon, Durrheim, and Tredoux 2005; Barlow et al. 2012). Contact typically involves some minimal interaction – how does the nature of these interactions affect political feelings towards other groups? Second, the methods needed to isolate the impact of interactive contact are not typically used. I offer a methodological and practical guide for studying intergroup interactive contact.

My focus is specifically on how everyday experiences with racial and ethnic outgroup members influence policy support and tolerance for those groups. I draw from theories about racial threat and communication difficulty from across the social sciences (e.g., Blalock 1967; Riek, Mania, and Gaertner 2006; Alter and Oppenheimer 2009; Craig, Rucker, and Richeson 2018). These theories predict that common forms of intergroup interactions can, even under the conditions discussed by Allport, fail to increase and may actually undermine outgroup support when they prompt feelings of outgroup threat. In this discussion, I focus primarily on the effects of equal status and similarity because of its connection to work on racial group dynamics and threat (e.g., Craig and Richeson 2014). In brief, the “better” the interactive contact seems to be, the more threatening it becomes – the result is either a failure to increase tolerance or even a backlash.

I test this expectation with a series of  four experiments, each focusing on racial and ethnic intergroup interactions. The first two experiments use study administrators to create in-person outgroup experiences. I then use two survey experiments to generalize these findings.

“The Nature of Partisan Stereotypes and Mass Polarization, 2008-2016” —with Adam Howat, Jacob Rothschild, and Richard Shafranek. Working paper

Recent research suggests that people’s mental images of the parties matter for partisan polarization. While important, this work has not yet considered trends over time, or how party images might fluctuate with different political environments. We look to fill this gap and explore what the public thinks about the two major American political parties, how those images vary with time, and how these ideas relate to mass polarization. To do so, we employ structural topic modeling to examine open-ended responses regarding both major political parties from the 2008, 2012, and 2016 American National Election Studies. While some people have little to say about the Democratic and Republican parties, we uncover themes relating to the values of the parties, relevant issue positions, references to elites, and mention of class-based groups. We consider the ways in which these themes correlate with key political and demographic variables. This research advances our understanding of partisan polarization by helping to clarify mass conceptions of partisanship itself, the relationship between stereotypes of the parties and attitudes toward those parties, and the temporal dimension of these relationships. We discuss the implications of this research for the study of partisanship, polarization, and political behavior.

“Political Stereotypes and Independent Identification”—with Adam Howat, Jacob Rothschild, and Richard Shafranek. Working paper

Research on partisanship has begun to explore the social-psychological dynamics of partisan affiliation, including the role played by stereotypes of rank-and-file party supporters. For the most part, however, this work has focused on partisan identifiers, with less attention paid to those who eschew party labels. We help to fill in this gap with a series of novel surveys measuring top-of-the-head considerations regarding both partisans and political independents. We utilize open-ended survey items and structural topic modeling to document stereotypes of people who identify as political independents – as well as independents’ stereotypes of fellow independents and of rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans. We present a descriptive overview of the stereotypes people hold of political independents, as well as the partisan stereotypes held by independents. Following research which suggests that many people identify as independent for presentational rather than political reasons, we explore how these stereotypes influence independent identification relative to other factors such as ideology and issue preferences, and examine their correlates among other political perceptions and outcomes.

Let’s Agree to (Not) Disagree: A New Look at Orientation Toward Conflict and Participation—with Richard Shafranek and Josh Pasek. Working paper

Recent research has moved from studying the effects of political disagreement to understanding people’s orientations towards political conflict and the consequences of these orientations. Some prior work suggests that conflict aversion may reduce political participation; however, other research fails to observe these patterns. We highlight the measurement strategies employed by previous research, and discuss the implications these choices may have. To clarify this literature, we use a panel study conducted in 2014 to attempt to replicate previous findings regarding the effects of conflict orientations on political participation. Using a number of different operationalizations of conflict orientations and political participation, we demonstrate that measurement choices have important consequences. We suggest that future research should continue to explore different operationalizations of conflict orientation and participation in order to more rigorously understand this concept.

Birds of a feather or apples and oranges? Different types and consequences of extremism. Ongoing project

While theoretically and normatively important, a number of conceptual and definitional challenges face researchers interested in the study of extremism. Based on existing empirical and theoretical studies of extremism, I identify five different types of extremism. I explore the way these versions of extremism relate to one another empirically and how their relationships with key democratic concepts (such as anti-democratic attitudes and tolerance for violence) differ. I use several data sources for this work, drawing on the ANES, CCES, and GSS along with original data collections.