Estimating the Effect of Elite Communications on Public Opinion Using Instrumental Variables
A central question in the study of democratic polities is the extent to which elite opinion about public policy shapes and potentially manipulates public opinion on those issues. Existing empirical estimates of the effect of elite communication on individual opinion formation are, however, characterized by a number of serious methodological problems, and consequently, there is little in the way of compelling evidence that elites actually influence individual opinions. This paper proposes an identification strategy for estimating the causal effect of elite messages on public support for European integration employing instrumental variable estimation. The paper presents three main empirical results. First, we find that more negative elite messages about European integration do indeed decrease public support for Europe. Our analysis suggests that OLS estimates that ignore the endogeneity, omitted variables, and measurement problems that typically occur in estimating the effects of elite communication are biased, underestimating the magnitude of the effect of elite messages by fifty percent. Second, we find no evidence that this effect of elite messages varies for more politically aware individuals. Third, our estimates are inconsistent with a mainstreaming effect in which political awareness increases support for Europe in those political settings in which elites have a favorable consensus on the benefits of integration. This result is in sharp contrast to the OLS analysis that incorrectly suggests a mainstreaming effect.
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