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Reality Bites: The Limits of Framing Effects for Salient and Contested Policy Issues*

Abstract

A large literature argues that public opinion is vulnerable to various types of framing and cue effects. However, we lack evidence on whether existing findings, which are typically based on lab experiments involving low-salience issues, travel to salient and contentious political issues in real-world voting situations. We examine the relative importance of issue frames, partisan cues, and their interaction for opinion formation using a survey experiment conducted around a highly politicized referendum on immigration policy in Switzerland. We find that voters responded to frames and cues, regardless of their direction, by increasing support for the position that is in line with their pre-existing partisan attachment. This reinforcement effect was most visible among low knowledgeable voters that identified with the party that owned the issue. These results support some of the previous findings in the political communication literature, but at the same time also point toward possible limits to framing effects in the context of salient and contested policy issues.

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Michael M. Bechtel, SNSF Research Professor, Department of Political Science, University of St. Gallen, Rosenbergstr. 51, CH-9000 St.Gallen (mbechtel.mail@gmail.com). Jens Hainmueller, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science and Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, 616 Serra Street, Stanford, 94305 (jhain@stanford.edu). Dominik Hangartner, Associate Professor, Department of Methodology, London School of Economics and Political Science, London WC2A 2AE and Department of Political Science, University of Zurich, Affolternstr. 56, CH-8050 Zurich (d.hangartner@lse.ac.uk). Marc Helbling. full professor in political science at the University of Bamberg and senior resarcher at WZB Berlin Social Science Center Reichpietschufer 50, D-10785 Berlin (helbling@wzb.eu). The authors gratefully acknowledge financial support by the WZB Berlin Social Research Center. Michael M. Bechtel gratefully acknowledges support by the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant #PP00P1-139035). The authors thank Judith Spirig for helpful comments. The usual disclaimer applies. To view supplementary material for this article, please visit http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/psrm.2014.39.

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Political Science Research and Methods
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