A Yale political scientist has found that people aren’t willing to follow their party leaders off a cliff when it comes to supporting one policy position over another — so long as they have enough substantive policy information at their disposal. In an article published in last month’s American Political Science Review, John Bullock evaluates how partisan voters weighed a policy change — a proposed cut to Medicaid benefits — sometimes including the views of party leaders and sometimes not. His main findings:

People rarely possess even a modicum of information about policies; but when they do, their attitudes seem to be affected at least as much by that information as by cues from party elites...Contrary to many accounts, they suggest that party cues do not inhibit such thinking. This is not cause for unbridled optimism about citizens’ ability to make good decisions, but it is reason to be more sanguine about their ability to use information about policy when they have it...Party cues are influential, but partisans in these experiments are generally affected at least as much—and sometimes much more—by exposure to substantial amounts of policy information.

Bullock also noted that non-partisan policy information tended to influence Democrats more than Republicans:

Republicans were less influenced than Democrats by policy considerations, and while need for cognition [“the extent to which people enjoy thinking”] made Democrats more responsive to policy, it made Republicans less responsive. More research is required to determine whether these results reflect basic differences between members of different parties.

Despite the “meager descriptions of policy” that are typically available, Bullock believes his findings are a cause for optimism. “The ability of political elites to mislead citizens is correspondingly limited, at least when citizens have other information on which to base their judgments,” he concludes.

(h/t Chris Blattman)