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Are Citizens "Receiving the Treatment"? Assessing a Key Link in Contextual Theories of Public Opinion and Political Behavior

01 Feb 2015-Political Psychology (John Wiley & Sons, Ltd)-Vol. 36, Iss: 1, pp 123-131

Abstract: The theorization and empirical exploration of contextual effects is a long-standing feature of public opinion and political behavior research. At present, however, there is little to no evidence that citizens actually perceive the local contextual factors theorized to influence their attitudes and behaviors. In this article, we focus on two of the most prevalent contextual factors appearing in theories—racial/ethnic and economic context—to investigate whether citizens’ perceptions of their local ethnic and economic contexts map onto variation in the actual ethnic composition and economic health of these environments. Using national survey data combined with Census data, and focusing on the popular topics of immigration and unemployment, we find that objective measures of the size of the immigrant population and unemployment rate in respondents’ county and zip code strongly predict perceived levels of local immigration and assessments of the health of one’s local job market. In addition to demonstrating that citizens are “receiving the treatment,” we show that perceptions of one’s context overwhelmingly mediate the effect of these objective contextual factors on relevant economic and immigration attitudes. The results from our analyses provide scholars with unprecedented evidence that a key perceptual process presumed in various contextual theories of political attitudes and behavior is, in fact, valid.
Topics: Public opinion (53%), Unemployment (51%), Immigration (51%), Survey data collection (50%)

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Version: Accepted Version
Article:
Newman, B.J., Hartman, T.K., Velez, Y.R. et al. (1 more author) (2015) Are citizens
‘receiving the treatment?’ Assessing the validity of contextual theories of public opinion and
political behavior. Political Psychology, 36 (1). 123 - 131. ISSN 1467-9221
https://doi.org/10.1111/pops.12069
This is the peer reviewed version of the following article: Newman, B. J., Velez, Y.,
Hartman, T. K. and Bankert, A. (2015), Are Citizens “Receiving the Treatment”? Assessing
a Key Link in Contextual Theories of Public Opinion and Political Behavior. Political
Psychology, 36: 123–131, which has been published in final form at
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Political Psychology, Vol. 36, No. 1, 2015
doi: 10.1111/pops.12069
Are Citizens ÒReceiving the TreatmentÓ? Assessing a Key Link in
Contextual Theories of Public Opinion and Political Behavior
Benjamin J. Newman
University of Connecticut
Yamil Velez
Stony Brook University
Todd K. Hartman
Appalachian State University
Alexa Bankert
Stony Brook University
The theorization and empirical exploration of contextual effects is a long-standing feature of public
opinion and political behavior research. At present, however, there is little to no evidence that
citizens actually perceive the local contextual factors theorized to influence their attitudes and
behaviors. In this article, we focus on two of the most prevalent contextual factors appearing in
theoriesÑracial/ethnic and economic contextÑto investigate whether citizensÕ perceptions of their
local ethnic and economic contexts map onto variation in the actual ethnic composition and
economic health of these environments. Using national survey data combined with Census data,
and focusing on the popular topics of immigration and unemployment, we find that objective
measures of the size of the immigrant population and unemployment rate in respondentcounty
and zip code strongly predict perceived levels of local immigration and assessments of the health
of oneÕs local job market. In addition to demonstrating that citizens are Òreceiving the treatment,Ó
we show that perceptions of oneÕs context overwhelmingly mediate the effect of these objective
contextual factors on relevant economic and immigration attitudes. The results from our analyses
provide scholars with unprecedented evidence that a key perceptual process presumed in various
contextual theories of political attitudes and behavior is, in fact, valid.
KEY WORDS: contextual effects, public opinion, political behavior
The exploration of contextual effects is a long-standing feature of public opinion and political
behavior research. As early as Key (1949), scholars have been testing hypotheses about how
characteristics of citizensÕ surrounding environments shape their policy preferences and vote
choices. Contextual effects are defined as the factors operative within a bounded space that lead to
casual interactions, observations, and diffuse experiences, capable of influencing the attitudes and
behaviors of those commonly residing within such spaces (Hopkins, 2010; Huckfeldt & Sprague,
1995). While the contextual field of behavior research has primarily yielded studies pertaining to
individualsÕ racial context (Campbell, Wong, & Citrin, 2006), the literature has extended beyond
this
123

124 Newman et al.
domain to explore the impacts of other local environmental factors, such as economic conditions
(Kam & Nam, 2008; Schissel, Wanner, & Frideres, 1989), political culture (Campbell et al., 2006),
educational composition (Oliver & Mendelberg, 2000), sex norms (Gaines & Garand, 2010), and
pollution levels (Blake, 2001).
There are several issues that plague contextual theories and analyses; for example, the
selection of the appropriate geographic unit of analysis (e.g., county, MSA, census tract, etc.)
(Hopkins, 2010; Oliver & Mendelberg, 2000) and endogeneity induced by residential self-selection
(Achen & Shively, 1995; Oliver & Wong, 2003). Aside from these highly discussed problems, one
critical issue facing contextual research pertains to the validity of a key theorized causal
mechanism linking context to outcomes of interest, specifically, the question of whether
individuals actually perceive the contextual factors stipulated to influence their attitudes and
behaviors. In other words, if contextual factors serve as an environmental stimulus hypothesized to
influence an outcome, then a crucial question is: Are citizens Òreceiving the treatmentÓ? This
question is germane to contextual theories, as most are predicated upon the presumption that
contextual forces are being perceived. Despite the centrality of this presumption, it represents a
hypothesis embedded within contextual theories that is largely untested.
For example, the racial threat hypothesis (Key, 1949) argues that the size of local minority
populations will affect WhitesÕ perceptions of intergroup competition and ultimately their level of
support for anti-minority policies and candidates. As noted by Hopkins (2010), one key
precondition for this and similar contextual theories to hold is that citizens must perceive their
racial contextÑto be exact, they must be aware of the existence and relative size of minority
groups in their surrounding environment. Despite the existence of research assessing citizensÕ
accuracy in gauging the size of national minority populations (e.g., Nadeau, Niemi, & Levine,
1993), there is little research at present directly assessing if, or how well, individuals attend to the
size of local minority populations. This is particularly true in the case of immigration, where
citizensÕ awareness of local immigrant populations has been drawn into question (Hopkins, 2010).
When moving to other environmental factors appearing in contextual theories, such as
economic conditions, there is no evidence that individuals accurately perceive the degree of local
unemployment or other indicators of economic vulnerability or distress. The absence of such
evidence constitutes a gap in existing research given that the literature is replete with work
exploring the effects of citizensÕ economic context, including its impact on racial and immigration
attitudes (Campbell et al., 2006; Schissel et al., 1989), welfare policy preferences (Kam & Nam,
2008), beliefs about the causes of poverty (Hopkins, 2009), sociotropic evaluations (Books &
Prysby, 1999; Hansford & Gomez, 2011; Weatherford, 1983), and economic voting more generally
(Johnston et al., 2000).
In short, while the contextual effects research has grappled with issues such as geo-unit
selection and residential self-selection, the literature has yet to directly test and confirm that
citizens do perceive the variety of forces operating within their local environments. In this article,
we take this issue to task. We focus upon two local environmental factorsÑethnic and economic
context, as they are most prevalent in researchÑand address two highly prominent corresponding
issues, namely immigration and unemployment. In the following sections, we present data and
analyses that assess (1) whether citizens perceive their ethnic and economic context and (2) the
degree to which the effect of contextual variables on attitudinal outcomes is mediated by the
perception of these environmental factors. In the first portion, we seek to determine whether
citizens receive the treatment; in the second part, we assess the degree to which this connects
context (i.e., the stimulus) to an attitudinal outcome (i.e., the response). We view the second part of
our analysis as vital given that contextual theories stipulate perception of oneÕs context, and
subsequent cognitive processes (e.g., the perception of threat), as the path through which objective
contextual factors influence policy preferences and political behavior.

Receiving the Treatment
125
Data and Methods
To perform our analyses, we rely upon a national survey of adult Americans conducted by the
Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Hispanic Center. This poll was
conducted by telephone between February 8 and March 7, 2006, and contains a total sample size of
N = 6,003.
1
Measurement
To measure citizensÕ awareness of the amount of immigrants in their local contexts, we rely
upon the following question: ÒHow many recent immigrants would you say live in your area?Ó
There are four ordered response options for this question: (1) ÒNone,Ó (2) ÒOnly a few,Ó (3)
ÒSome,Ó and
(4) ÒMany.Ó This item, labeled Perceived Immigration, will serve as the main perceptual
dependent variable for our analyses of immigration context. To measure citizensÕ awareness of
their local economic context, and specifically, the level of unemployment, we use the following
item: ÒThinking now about job opportunities where you live, would you say there are plenty of
jobs available in your community or are jobs difficult to find This item has three response
options: (1) ÒPlenty of jobs available,Ó (2) ÒLots of some jobs, few of others,Ó and (3) ÒJobs are
difficult to find.Ó This item, labeled Perceived Jobs, will serve as the main perceptual dependent
variable for our analyses of economic context. We should note that although these ordinal variables
are not as fine grained as continuous percentage-point estimates of ethnic populations and
unemployment rates, research has demonstrated that many citizens suffer from innumeracy (e.g.,
Nadeau et al., 1993; Sigelman & Yanarella, 1986), revealing that such estimates tend to be difficult
for citizens to provide and are error prone. Given this, we believe that these ordinal items, while
coarse, may better map onto the relatively imprecise nature in which citizens perceive gradations in
the ethnic and economic characteristics of their context.
To measure objective levels of local immigration, we relied upon the 2000 Decennial Census
2
to obtain measures of the percent foreign-born
3
in each respondentÕs county and zip code of
residence. Within our data, the correlation between county and zip-code immigrant populations is
relatively high (r = .67), suggesting that respondents residing in immigrant-heavy counties will
also likely have larger immigrant populations in their more immediate neighborhood. To measure
actual unemployment, we use the 2000 Census to obtain measures of the percent of unemployed
individuals residing within each respondentÕs county and zip code. The correlation between county
and zip-code unemployment is much weaker (r = .45), which suggests that there are many
respondents living in neighborhoods that are more (or less) economically distressed relative to their
county as a whole.
Our analyses included a variety of controls: education, income, age, gender (1 = male), race (1
= black), ethnicity (1 = Hispanic), and homeownership (1 = homeowner). To control for the
potential role of personal economic concerns in shaping attention to immigrant populations and
1
This survey contains an oversample of respondents from five major metropolitan areas (Chicago, Las Vegas, Phoenix,
Raleigh-Durham, and Washington, DC). While our analyses include these oversamples, the results from our analyses
remain unchanged when excluding these oversamples.
2
Given that our survey data is from 2006, we would have preferred to have used Census data from that same year;
however, the 2006 American Community Survey only provides data for roughly 800 counties with large populations and,
more importantly, does not provide zip-code-level estimates for our variables of interest. While the 2005Ð2009 and 2006Ð
2010 American Community Surveys do overlap in time with our Pew survey and provide more complete data for counties
and zips, these estimates are based upon five-year data collections and thus include data collected after 2006. Our key
contextual results from the 2000 Census do not change when using 2005Ð2009 ACS data.
3
Given that the question wording for our Perceived Immigration item refers to Òrecent immigrants,Ó we reran our models at
the county and zip level substituting percent foreign-born in 2000 for percent of recent foreign-born (foreign-born that
entered the United States in the year 2000 or later). The results in Table 1 hold when reestimating our models with this
alternative measure.

126
Newman et al.
Table 1. The Effect of Objective Ethnic Context on Perceived Amount of Local Immigration
County Level
Zip Level
Contextual Level
Percent foreign-born
2.38*** (.326)
3.89*** (.252)
Individual Level
Education
.316*** (.098)
.311** (.116)
Income
.021 (.133)
.056 (.130)
Age
.008*** (.002)
.007*** (.002)
Gender
.040 (.044)
.083 (.053)
Black
.482*** (.127)
.464*** (.089)
Hispanic
.2338
(.144)
.415*** (.102)
Homeowner
.072 (.067)
.059 (.077)
Unemployed
.3298
(.175)
.406* (.207)
Pocketbook evaluations
.139 (.110)
.061 (.115)
Ideology
.176 (.111)
.160 (.116)
Thresholds
Cut 1
2.48 (.200)
2.52 (.186)
Cut 2
.539 (.180)
.553 (.174)
Cut 3
.795 (.172)
.807 (.172)
N
6,003
5,369
Number of clusters
928
2,350
Effect Size
Pr (Y = ÒMany Recent
ImmigrantsÓ) due to
inpercent foreign-born
MinMax
.525
.675
1
st
99
th
.391
.516
5
th
95
th
.279
.401
Note. Entries are unstandardized coefficients from ordered logistic regressions using clustered standard errors. Reported
effect sizes are based upon postestimation analysis of predicted probabilities using CLARIFY (King, Tomz, and
Wittenberg, 2000) in Stata¨. Reported effects represent the change in the probability of perceiving ÒMany Recent
ImmigrantsÓ associated with 0 to 1, 1
st
to 99
th
percentile, and 5
th
to 95
th
percentile, changes in percent foreign-born.
p < .10, *p < .05, **p < .01, ***p < .001. Significance levels based upon two-tailed hypothesis tests.
unemployment rates, all models include measures of employment status (1 = unemployed) and
pocketbook evaluations. Last, to control for a possible effect of respondentsÕ political leanings, all
models include controls for ideological self-identification. For ease of interpretation, all variables
were recoded to range from 0 to 1.
4
Given the ordinal nature of the perceived immigration and
unemployment dependent variables and our use of county-level demographic predictors, we
estimate ordered logistic regression models with clustered standard errors.
Results
Tables 1 and 2 report the results from our analysis of the impact of objective measures of
individualsÕ local context on their perceptions of their context. Beginning with immigration, Table
1 reveals that the percent foreign-born in respondentsÕ county and zip both exerted significant
effects on their perceptions of the amount of immigration in their local area. Moving from
minimum to maximum immigrant-population size in respondentsÕ county (i.e., from .24% to 46%)
and zip (i.e., 0% to 73%) was associated with a significant increase in the probability of reporting
ÒmanyÓ immigrants in oneÕs local area. While the coefficient for the percent foreign-born is larger
for zip
4
For more information about variable measurement and question wording, please see Appendix A.

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