Looking at U.S. political behavior through an international lens

Fabian Neuner, the 2015 Converse Miller Fellow and one of the 2014 Roy Pierce Scholars, is studying how information in news media coverage influences voter preferences for government spending, and how the debate over voter ID laws affects voter turnout.

Fabian Neuner. Photo by U-M Rackham Graduate School

Fabian Neuner. Photo by U-M Rackham Graduate School

Fabian Neuner grew up in Austria with an English mum and an Austrian dad, and came of age at a time when everyone was talking about the European Union. “From an early age, I was quite interested in why the two countries I knew best had such skeptical attitudes about the Union,” he says.

That was one of the reasons Neuner, 28, decided to study politics. He completed an M.Phil. in Politics at the University of Oxford and a B.Sc. in European Politics, Society and Economics at the University of Birmingham, where he was a student activist, serving as President of Birmingham’s Guild of Students.

The backlash against the EU since the 1990s informed his decision to come to the U.S. in 2012. “I wanted to study political psychology using a quantitative approach,” he says. At the University of Michigan, where he is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science, Neuner has worked closely with ISR political scientists Nicholas Valentino and Stuart Soroka.

With support from the Pierce Scholars Fund in 2014, Neuner worked with Valentino to understand an intriguing puzzle – why, despite clear theoretical predictions, have we not seen an effect of voter identification laws on participation.

Thirty U.S. States have now adopted voter ID laws, Neuner points out, and many opponents maintain that they will effectively disenfranchise racial and ethnic minorities as well as the poor, depressing turnout of these groups on election day. But recent empirical research into the effects of voter ID laws on turnout has returned mixed or null results. One possible explanation, Neuner and Valentino theorized, is that these laws may fuel counter-mobilization efforts. “We argue that the extant literature has not paid enough attention to the ways in which the enactment of such laws may propel some people to engage in behavior that would help to counteract the net decrease in turnout brought about by the laws,” explains Neuner.

In a survey, Valentino and Neuner looked at whether people who said they were angry about voter ID laws were more likely to go out and vote. They found that Democrats in particular were more likely to participate when they were angry about these laws being in place. Then they ran an experiment to look at the question more closely, confirming that while some people may be disenfranchised by these laws and thus not turn out to vote, others are inspired.

Their article on the findings, “Why the Sky Didn’t Fall: Mobilizing Anger in Reaction to Voter ID Laws“, was recently published online in Political Psychology, a peer-reviewed journal. “This issue is now being raised again, as some Republican politicians are calling for voter ID laws during the current election campaign,” says Neuner. “When the primaries are over and the general election activities begin, we’ll hear more about this issue.”

Neuner’s current project with Soroka, supported by the 2015 Converse Miller Fellowship, explores a different political issue – how public preferences for government spending are influenced “thermostatically” by information about past spending gleaned from news media. In a working paper, “The Clue’s in the News: Unpacking the Thermostatic Model’s Mechanism of Policy Responsiveness,” Neuner and Soroka, together with co-author Christopher Wlezien at the University of Texas, Austin, explore the frequency and accuracy of policy information in news articles in The New York Times and Washington Post. “When we gave those articles to approximately 1,800 people, we found they were very adept at gleaning whether policy spending on defense policy was increasing or not, based on the media information about the direction of spending levels,” says Neuner. “And prior research has shown that public support for specific policies is influenced by a sense of whether spending in certain policy areas is rising or falling.”

Fabian Neuner snowboarding.

Fabian Neuner snowboarding.

With all the research he’s been doing, in addition to teaching, Neuner has had little time for travel or his long-time passion of snowboarding. “I spend most of my time working at ISR,” he says. “It’s just a great place for inter-disciplinary exchange, not just with my advisors but through conversations that happen in the hallways. I’m very aware that this is where it all started, and I’m so grateful to ISR and the Center for Political Studies for supporting my work. I go to the CPS seminars every week – it’s a great community of people who are looking to make everyone’s work better. It’s just a very supportive environment here.”

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