Research Overview

My research investigates how people think about politics as well as how thoughts and preferences are translated into political activity. My work has been published in Political Research Quarterly and featured in the Washington Post and The Atlantic.

I am especially interested in how context and geography influence behavior. While I use various methodologies in my research, such as standard computation techniques and computational text analysis, I rely mostly upon experiments (lab, survey, and field). See below for additional information regarding my dissertation and other research projects. 


Place Identity and Place Consciousness

Dissertation: Divided by Place: The Enduring Geographic Fault Lines of American Politics (in progress)

  • Committee: Nicholas Winter (UVa), Paul Freedman (UVa), Justin Kirkland (UVa), Katherine Cramer (Wisconsin-Madison)

My dissertation project builds upon social identity theory and other group-based models of social behavior to demonstrate the continued relevance of geographic identities in American electoral politics. To this end, I argue that powerful emotional attachments to geographic sites can serve as the basis for social identity, or how we understand ourselves and our place in society. These place-based identities are important politically as they easily serve as a conduit to political action, in large part due to the fundamentally geographic nature of American representational and governmental systems. In this dissertation, I develop a unified theory of place and political behavior, while focusing empirically on the role of place in American electoral politics and representation. I show that politicians appeal to place frequently in the form of political advertising on the campaign trails, as well as when cultivating their “digital homestyles” online once in office. Furthermore, I provide evidence that these appeals are effective, that voters report having place-based preferences regarding their representatives, and that these preferences are moderated by the strength of individual voters’ sense of place. Finally, using nationally representative survey data, I provide evidence that place consciousness (aka “place resentment”) explains attitudes toward President Trump and vote choice in the 2018 midterm elections, even after accounting for the impacts of other attitudes (including racial attitudes) and demographic criteria (such as ideological and partisan identity). Once this dissertation is completed, I intend on taking the steps necessary to convert it into a book.

“Us Over Here Versus Them Over There…Literally: Measuring Place Consciousness in American Politics”

Political scientists and the mass public alike have grown accustomed to thinking of electoral politics in geographical terms. For instance, there is a “red America” that largely covers the country’s expansive heartland and there is a “blue America” mostly confined to the coasts. Until recently, however, public opinion scholars had largely lost sight of the fact that the places where people live, and people’s attachments to and identification with those places, shape public opinion and influence political behavior. Building on Cramer’s (2016) ethnographic work exploring the contours of place consciousness and rural resentment in Wisconsin, my paper develops and validates a psychometric scale measure of a key political psychological dimension of place: place consciousness. This scale measure, called the Place Consciousness Scale (PCS), is flexible and can easily be modified and deployed in a multitude of geographical contexts. In addition to differentiating place consciousness from racial resentment and other attitudes, I provide preliminary evidence regarding potential explanatory power of PCS pertaining to public opinion, showing that PCS is capable of accounting for variation in individuals’ evaluations of political parties, self-reported 2016 vote choice, and support for President Trump. Overall, the Place Consciousness Scale represents a highly valuable resource to quantitative researchers, such as political psychologists, who wish to expand our knowledge regarding the effects of place on our politics.

“Place, Candidate Roots, and Voter Preferences in an Age of Partisan Polarization: Observational and Experimental Evidence”

Throughout the mid-twentieth century, scholars identified considerable contextual variation in American electoral politics. Party platforms varied significantly across the country, split ticket voting was commonplace, and candidate idiosyncrasies appeared to matter a great deal to voters. In particular, candidates’ roots seemed especially important to voters, with homegrown candidates enjoying a boost at the polls. Scholars dubbed this the “Friends and Neighbors Effect.” In the twenty-first century, scholars have shifted away from the study of context in electoral politics, including preferences regarding rooted candidates—all this despite pundits’ regular fixation on high profile cases that suggest the possible enduring impact of so-called Friends and Neighbors Effect. Despite recent anecdotal examples suggesting candidate roots still matter, there is good reason to expect that they may not. Partisan politics have polarized, both ideologically amongst elites and “affectively” amongst the electorate, continually since the mid-1990s (Mason 2018). In addition, recent work suggests that American political behavior has “nationalized;” meaning that national level partisan cues dominate voters’ decision calculus, from presidential to mayoral races (Hopkins 2018). Both of these trends suggest little to no role for apolitical candidate characteristics to factor into voters’ evaluations of candidates. To reassess voters’ appetite for local candidates, this paper features observational and conjoint experimental studies designed to discern whether individuals still view candidates’ roots as important. Results indicate that, despite trends of partisan polarization and nationalization, voters continue to consider candidate roots important. Furthermore, this preference appears especially strong among those with a strong place identity, suggesting that those for whom geographical identity is most important are particularly sensitive to geographical cues.

“Anger from Afar: Place-Based Resentment in Contemporary American Elections” with Nicholas Jacobs

Scholars argue that American political culture and identity is dominated by national issues and personalities. We argue that Americans continue to think in highly spatial ways and that a "sense of place" is critical to opinion formation, even if traditional measures of public attitudes fail to take these place-based identities into account (Hopkins 2014; King 1996). Drawing on a unique battery of questions from the 2018 CCES, we study the extent to which Americans feel anger and animosity towards communities that are geographically distinct from their own. Building off of the insights of several scholars interested in place-based identities (Cramer 2016; Parker 2014; Key 1949), we describe our index of place-based resentment, which captures individual sentiment regarding political inequality, deservingness, and appreciation for cultural and economic diversity across geographically distinct places across the United States. We report results on how place-based resentment predicted vote choice in the 2018 midterm elections and how those feelings relate to other widely studied facets of political behavior such as partisanship, interest in politics, and racial resentment. Place-based resentment is one way to measure the consequential ways in which the local still matters.

“Bringing Home to the Hill: The Use of Place in Floor Speeches,” with Richard Burke and Janet Lawler.

Fenno (1973) explores how members use resource allocation, self-presentation, and communication strategies to create “home styles” in their districts which serve their electoral needs (31-33). Recent research in both public opinion and Congress give us reason to wonder if the district remains important to understanding the behavior of members. Hopkins (2018) suggests that shifts in the electorate provide less incentives for elected officials to be attuned to local concerns as voters increasingly make political decisions on the basis of national politics rather than district-specific criteria. Who still cares about the district? To answer this question, we turn to Congressional floor speeches. Congressional floor speeches provide a particularly good vantage point because they take place while the legislator is in Washington and not the district. By examining floor speeches made during the 108th and 115th Congress, we create a measure of “district language” for each member of Congress using a supervised classifier model utilizing machine learning for text analysis. The model is informed by a natural language processing method, latent Dirichlet allocation (LDA), a descriptive measure for topic modelling. After conducting this analysis, we find considerable variation in district language among members of Congress. This empirical reality leads to a theoretical question, why do some legislators talk about their districts more than others? We theorize that district-language is strategic, electorally-minded behavior and that variations in its use can be attributed to different electoral circumstances which members face. Specifically, legislators who serve districts that have weak partisan leans or have partisan leans incongruent with the legislator’s party are more likely to use district language. In addition to this primary hypothesis, we also test a variety of alternative hypotheses which relate to member traits and district composition.

“Place and Black Public opinion in the Southern United States”

A now considerable amount of scholarship shows that there is substantial variation in political attitudes among black Americans. A recent surge in scholarship highlights the enduring importance of geographical identification and assorted attitudes in influencing public opinion and political behavior. Combining these two research streams, recent research has shown that regional identity strength can help account for variation in political attitudes among Black Americans, particularly when comparing Southern Blacks to those who live in other regions (see the work of Princess Williams). In this project, I aim to investigate how place identity and other geographical group based attachments (and their associated attitudes) along the urban-rural dimension structure Black Southern opinion.

“Experimental Evidence on the Relationship Between Place-based Appeals and Voter Evaluations,” with Nicholas Jacobs, published in political research quarterly (2018)

Prior research has shown that social identities defined by an attachment to place (i.e., “place-based identity”) are influential in shaping how citizens understand and think about political topics. Moreover, prior research has also argued that candidates sometimes utilize “place-based appeals” in order to win support among the electorate, and that such appeals are seemingly widespread. While past research has provided a rich understanding of what place-based identity and place-based appeals are, there is a large gap in what we know about the causal effects of such appeals. In this study, we address this gap by testing experimentally the effects of place-based appeals on voters’ evaluation of candidate likeability and ability to understand their constituents, across the broader American patchwork. Using a set of modified campaign mailer advertisements, we alter whether respondents see an ad that uses rural or urban imagery when introducing a candidate. We then test for the effectiveness of place-based appeals by measuring how respondents from self-reported rural and urban areas evaluate the candidate across the three conditions. Our results indicate that, consistent with existing theory, place-based appeals are impactful in shaping political evaluations among rural voters, but do not appear as relevant for urban voters. Overall, we argue that places–or symbolically charged geographical sites–are a useful, widespread, and potentially powerful political heuristic.

Political Communication

Note* Much of my work on place (described above) also concerns political communication.

“Information Valence and Evaluations of Congress and Individual Legislators: Experimental Evidence Regarding Negativity Bias in Politics” with bennie ashton, Revise & Resubmit

    Our judgments of others are based largely upon how we perceive the valence of their actions. People tend to place more weight upon negative information when evaluating the world around them.This asymmetry leads to people requiring a lesser amount of negative information (versus positive) about an individual to conclude that said individual has officially changed for the worse (better). While this asymmetric effect appears to be prevalent in the realm of mundane interpersonal evaluation, it remains less clear whether, and to what extent, this phenomenon applies to relatively impersonal political contexts where politicians and political institutions are the object of evaluation. To address this gap, this paper features multiple experimental studies designed to assess the extent to which negativity bias may be operable in politics. Results indicate that less negative information is required to reach a judgement than is positive information. Similarly, our evidence suggests that voters are quicker to punish politicians for negative behavior than to reward them for positive behavior. In most cases, these effects are moderated by partisanship, with negativity bias being more severe against members of the partisan out-group. Overall, we argue that negativity bias is a powerful force in shaping public opinion and one that is relevant to many contemporary issues in American politics.

“The Cost of Alzheimer’s Disease: Effective Frames in Health Policy,” with Andrew J. Clarke And Chelsea Goforth

Despite a large literature on framing effects in political science, we know relatively little about the effcacy of competing frames. This is surprising, as frame selection is critical to the goal of national advocacy groups. We take a step toward bridging this gap by experimentally manipulating two framing strategies employed by the Alzheimer’s Association. We find, contrary to first-hand accounts, that an economic cost frame (i.e., presenting the economic burden of Alzheimer’s disease on all Americans) is no more effective than a human cost frame (i.e., the number of deaths and diagnoses each year). Our results advance the study of political frames in public policy debates and inform the strategic decisions of advocacy organizations in the United States.

“Can Grammar Really Win Elections? Reevaluating Grammatical Effects in Political Evaluation”

Prior research has found that subtle grammatical details (e.g., verbal aspect) can sway public opinion. Though, due to the nascent state of this literature, uncertainty remains regarding the true magnitude, as well as external validity, of these effects. Combined with scientific standards regarding replication and reproducibility, this suggests that more research in this area is necessary to understand the role of grammar in public opinion. Toward this end, this paper presents a series of experimental studies investigating potential grammatical effects—some of which attempt to reproduce the results of previous research in this area. Results indicate that, contrary to previous findings, subtle grammatical differences in the presentation of political information do not significantly influence public opinion. These findings, due to being contrary to other research in this area, cast further uncertainty regarding the role of grammar in political evaluation and suggest that further research in this area is yet needed.


“Exploring the Emotional Dimensions of U.S. Presidential Debates. A Big Data Approach,” with David Reinhard (In Progress)

This project, which is funded by the University of Virginia Presidential Fellowship in Data Science, investigates how politicians use emotional rhetoric during U.S. presidential debates and the impact this has on the emotional intensity of viewers. In the first phase of the project, we use a computer-based text analysis program to document and analyze the emotional content of politician’s language for each U.S. presidential debate from 1960 through the present day. In the second and third phases of the study, we utilize data mining and text analysis strategies on social media data to evaluate the types of emotional responses, as well as their intensity, that individuals watching the presidential debates experience.



Please find data for my published articles below.

2018. "Place Based Imagery and Voter Evaluations: Experimental Evidence on the Politics of Place," Political Research Quarterly.