Closing the Overton Window

A window, which has been shown to actually work
A window, which has been shown to actually work
It’s become quite common for political pundits and online commentators to talk sagely about the “Overton Window” when they’re talking about public opinion. (Click here for a sampling of recent uses of it) It’s presented as an immutable law of political science – there’s a range of possible policies available on any given issue or set of issues, but only a certain amount (those within the Overton Window) are possible/politically deliverable at any given time. Thus, to make something politically possible that’s currently not, one must shift the window somehow.

There’s always a general vagueness about just how it works, but that the the Overton Window exists is taken as read by a lot of people, and I’m sure most people who cite it believe it’s an idea that’s been discussed by academics over many years and has been rigorously tested and proven to be correct. You might think that, but you’d be wrong. Here’s a search for it with Google Scholar, which indexes millions of pieces of academic research and writing, which brings back no serious academic references to it. It does get mentioned in a few Glenn Beck books, some obscure libertarian pamphlets and in publications from the think tank it emerged from, but no serious academic attention has been paid to it.

Why is that? I’d propose that the most obvious explanation is that the Overton Window isn’t actually a theory, it’s just a vague assertion. See, for instance, this article about it (pdf) which starts from the assumption that it exists and goes from there. Any actual theory of political science has to be testable, and if the Overton Window was a theory it would come with a set of testable predictions about public opinion and how it shifts over time. It would also come with justification for some of the simplifying assumptions it appears to be based on, most notably that all the policy options for a certain issue can be placed on a straight line. None of that exists for the Overton Window, and none of its advocates appear to have put any effort into trying to prove it, preferring to assert its truth without testing.

I’ve written before about Zaller’s Receive-Accept-Sample model of public opinion, and I think it provides an interesting counterexample to the Overton Window in that it’s a genuine theory which has been thoroughly tested and shown to make accurate predictions about how public opinion works. However, as it’s slightly more complex than ‘you can do some things, you can’t do others, but if you want to do the others then sizeable donations to our think tank might help make them possible’ it doesn’t get mentioned much by supposed experts on public opinion in the media.

This is a shame, because I think Zaller’s work on how elite opinion leads public opinion (in The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion) is a much more useful concept than talk of windows. Zaller shows that when elites (politicians, media and other opinion formers) are generally agreed on an issue, public opinion follows suit. Public opinion on an issue only begins to shift when elite opinion begins to divide and differ. To use Zaller’s example (though there are many others in the wider literature), American opinion on the Vietnam War was mostly in favour of it until newspapers and politicians started raising questions about it, and then it began to fade. (That’s a bit of a simplification, but the key point is that public opinion tends to follow elite opinion, not vice versa) If there’s not an elite consensus, then public opinion will tend to cover a much wider spectrum.

Public opinion is a much more vague and nebulous thing than an idea like the Overton Window gives credit for. In truth, most people have what Converse called ‘nonattitudes’ to most issues: they’re capable of giving an opinion on something if asked, but that opinion is often completely random based on what they’ve seen and heard recently rather than a fixed and carefully considered outcome of rational thought. Trying to analyse something so amorphous using concepts that are fundamentally weak is almost a guarantee of misunderstanding what’s actually happening. Public opinion can be shifted much more quickly and much more widely than people think but the key to doing that is finding messages that reach people and become part of their considerations, not obsessing over the location of mythical windows.

The Green Party video: reaching voters other parties can’t reach?

changethetuneThe Green Party’s ‘Change The Tune’ election broadcast has generated quite a response since it was first released on Wednesday. Most of that reaction – and I include my initial ones – to it was pretty derisory, with lots of political types on Twitter saying it was the worst election broadcast they’ve ever seen, what a terrible idea it was, why didn’t it feature Caroline Lucas talking about policy etc etc

What we didn’t consider was that it wasn’t aimed at us, and indeed wasn’t really aiming to be the traditional election broadcast. How many of them get reported by MTV?


Consider how many people have learnt about it just from that tweet (MTV UK have 1.5m Twitter followers, by the way, much more than all the political parties combined) and look at how many people are talking about it on social media. This is a broadcast that’s succeded on two fronts – it’s got lots of traditional media coverage, but perhaps more importantly, it’s reaching an audience who wouldn’t normally pay any attention to party election broadcasts.

I wrote the other week about John Zaller’s model of how public opinion forms, and this is an important illustration of part of that. One of the important ideas in Zaller is the difference between ‘high information’ and ‘low information’ voters. If you’re reading this blog, then you’re most likely a ‘high information’ voter – that’s not back slapping, just a fact that the sort of person who reads political blogs is someone who’s probably accessing lots of information about the election, has well-formed opinions on many issues but because they have so much information is unlikely to change their views or who they vote for. On the other hand, low information voters aren’t paying much, if any, attention to the election and don’t have many opinions on political issues. However, they’re also likely to be very resistant to political messages delivered in a traditional way even if they see them. They’ll ignore PEBs on TV, won’t be following politicians or parties on social media and will likely ignore political messages they see, especially if they’re from a source they don’t know or trust.

This Green Party video, however, isn’t getting shared by the traditional channels. Sure, it’s being shared and discussed by high-information politicos on Twitter and blogs, but that’s incidental. Because we’re high-information, we’re going to pay attention to things like that, even if it’s very unlikely to change our minds. The problem for most election broadcasts is that’s pretty much the only audience they reach after they’ve been shown on TV. Most people won’t see them on TV, won’t notice them even if one of the few shares of them makes it to their social media streams and will be blissfully unaware that they even exist. The Green video, though, has effectively gone viral with people beyond the usual political suspects sharing it and saying ‘you need to watch this’. Going back to Zaller’s model, this is how it’s reached the Accept stage of opinion formation: because it’s recommended by someone they trust, people will choose to watch it and, crucially, pay attention to the messages in it.

It’s not going to have such an affect as to sweep the Green Party to an unexpected or even a surge in the polls, but it’s got their message out to a lot of people who wouldn’t normally take on political messages. That doesn’t make them more likely to vote, but if they do vote, it’s more likely that they’ll think of voting Green.

Receive-Accept-Sample: How people form opinions

the-nature-and-origins-of-mass-opinionAs we’re now into the election campaign, the entire purpose of which is to get people to form a certain set of opinions and then act on them on May 7th, I thought it was about time I went back to doing another post on a concept from political science that seeks to explain how opinions are formed.

What I’ll be looking at in this post is John Zaller’s 1992 book The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, and the model for public opinion he sets out in, which he terms the Receive-Accept-Sample or RAS model. This is a widely accepted model of how public opinion formed, but not universally agreed upon, and it’s also worth noting that it was published in 1992, so before any widespread use of the internet.

I’m going to try and explain the model as simply as I can, but remember that this is a 300+ page book with lots of charts and tables so Zaller’s arguments are a lot more complex and subtle than the precis of them I’ll provide here. The book is worth reading, or you can also try Drew Westen’s The Political Brain, which takes a more psychological approach to public opinion, but is more up to date and discusses Zaller along with other approaches. (I wrote about it here)
Continue reading Receive-Accept-Sample: How people form opinions

Don’t expect Liberal Democrat poll ratings to go up during the election just because they always have

1992graph

The Lib Dems nearly always do better than their poll ratings said before a general election.

As David Boyle wrote in a recent post, anticipating that this will also be the case in 2015. (It’s not like David’s the first person to say that, and he likely won’t be the last, but he happened to say it on the day I felt like writing about the subject.)

It’s become a truism, often spoken by worried Liberal Democrat activists as a morale-booster to lift the hopes and the spirits as they see another set of polls recording the party in single figures and duelling for fourth place with the Greens. The election campaign will be starting soon, they eagerly say, and our poll rating always improves during the election campaign.

Unlike most political truisms, this one actually happens to be broadly true. If you look at the records of polling from 1970 onwards that are kept on UK Polling Report, there’s an uptick in Liberal/Alliance/Liberal Democrat voting intention in the last part of every graph, so it is true that Liberal Democrats have generally done better than the pre-election campaign polls suggest they would. And yes, I’m being careful to use the past tense there.

Two things worth remembering here:

  • Past trends do not indicate future performance
  • Trends in politics and other fields always continue applying right up until they don’t
  • At this point, I don’t know if the campaign will see a rise in Liberal Democrat support as happened in other general election campaigns, but given that there’s one major difference between this and those other campaigns, I think it’s misguided to just assume it will happen regardless.

    (I did have a look to see if I could find any academic studies on this, but couldn’t find any – please point me in the direction of any you know of)

    They key difference, of course, is that the Liberal Democrats have been in government for the last five years, something that wasn’t true at the time of any of the previous surges. Leaving aside issues of ‘party of protest’ votes, what this means is that the Liberal Democrats have been much more prominent in the media over the last five years than they have during previous Parliaments. Liberal Democrat members of the Cabinet and ministers are regularly in the news, and the party as a whole is getting much more coverage outside of election time than it ever has before. In short, voters are much more likely now to have much more information about the Liberal Democrats than they ever had before.

    One of these days I’m going to do a longer post explaining Zaller’s Receive-Accept-Sample model of public opinion, but for now it’s important just to note that one of the important determinants of how people vote is the amount of information they have about a party. In previous elections, most voters came into the election campaign knowing relatively little about the Liberal Democrats because the party’s dearth of mainstream media coverage didn’t give them the opportunity to receive much information about the party. So, when election time came around and the media started featuring Liberal Democrats more at a time when people’s awareness of political issues was heightened, it understandably affected their voting behaviour. Coupled with an ability to run a strong campaign (one of the few campaigns where this effect didn’t seem to happen was 1987, when the Alliance campaign was a mess), this meant that when voters made their decision, they had a number of positive thoughts about the Liberal Democrats.

    The situation this year is completely different as time in government means the Liberal Democrats are no longer an unknown and fresh party to voters. While the party will obviously get good amounts of coverage in the election campaign, this will not be received by voters in the same way it was before as they now already have a bank of opinions about the party to weigh any new considerations against. People seeing Nick Clegg aren’t seeing the effectively new person voters saw in 2010, they’re seeing the man who’s been Deputy Prime Minister and regularly on the news for the last five years with all the connotations that brings. In previous elections, voters were open to receiving campaign messages from the Liberal Democrats because they didn’t have many pre-existing views about the party, but now they do, and we don’t know how those will affect voters’ decisions.

    The idea that voters in 2015 are going to react the same way to exposure to Liberal Democrats that voters in previous elections did completely misses out that the party is in a fundamentally different position going in to this election than it was in any of the previous ones where the ‘Liberal surge’ occurred. Expecting things to happen just as they did before when fundamental conditions have changed is nothing more than wishful thinking.