Research Agenda

My research agenda centers around how American political figures, such as candidates for office, publicly communicate, with a focus on their use of technologies. I incorporate aspects of both political behavior and political institutions. Of particular interest to me is the question of how political actors communicate to achieve their goals. What features of their environment shape their decision-making-- if running for office this could be the electoral features they run in, but it could also be the purview of a government agency or the make up of a legislature.

Today the new technologies used by politicians and campaigns include social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram; in the past this included television ads, direct mailers, email, and websites and there are sure to be continued innovations in the future. My goal in studying political communication is to understand how the impact of who a political audience is (voters, politicians, the media, etc.) with the means of communicating affects substantively important aspects of political life. In my dissertation, I begin this intellectual agenda by examining how and why politicians use social media platforms. The answer to this question has many implications. Normatively, we desire our representatives in government to be representative and accountable to their constituents. Practically, it brings into question the influence of money in politics, potential regulations of tech companies, and how politicians make decisions.

Projects

Changing Audiences, Changing Messages? The Use of Social Media in Congressional Campaigns (dissertation book project)

Who do politicians speak to when they tweet? Earlier scholars theorized that Twitter would be a democratizing space, where political elites could provide information directly to the public and the public could respond. I propose a different answer- that Twitter is not a space to reach directly to your voters, but rather a tool to speak with fellow elites. Using an original dataset of all tweets posted by 2018 congressional candidates, I provide descriptive overviews of follow/friend behavior and tweet topics over time, leverage the February 2018 redistricting in Pennsylvania to distinguish between messages targeting voters or political elites, and assess the implications of how campaigns use Twitter on outcomes such as campaign contributions, media coverage, and votes. This is supported through interviews with congressional candidates and staff. If Twitter is a space where political elites speak to each other, then we should consider what that means for political discourse and campaigns. How pervasive is this- are politicians directly responsive to voters on other platforms, or is it a trend beyond Twitter? What impact does this have on the increasing incivility in American politics?

Changing Audiences, Changing Messages? Redistricting & Social Media in Congressional Campaigns (working paper)

Who do politicians speak to when they tweet? Earlier scholars theorized that Twitter would be a democratizing space, where political elites could provide information directly to the public and the public could respond. I propose a different answer- that Twitter is not a space to reach directly to your voters, but rather a tool to speak with fellow elites. This chapter leverages the February 2018 redistricting in Pennsylvania following League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania v. the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which resulted in substantial changes to the partisan composition of several House districts less than three months before the primaries. I argue that if there was a time when congressional candidates would shape their Twitter behavior to appeal to voters, this is one such time. Through interviews with congressional candidates and staff, descriptive trends in Twitter mentions, as well as the content of tweets, I provide evidence that the campaigns did not change their Twitter behavior following the redistricting. This suggests that the focus of their tweets is not their constituents.

Tweets as Signals? Testing the Interest Group Connection (working paper)

Modern congressional candidates no longer need to rely on the traditional news media to filter their communication to voters. Instead, social media tools such as Twitter offer candidates direct access to potential constituents. Their posts act as signals to multiple audiences, such as potential voters or organized interests. Certain political events offer candidates opportunities to communicate to these interest groups. In this paper, I test one of these relationships; that between a campaign and relevant organized interests. When candidates choose to link their campaign communications to nationally salient and polarizing Supreme Court decisions, does this public signal of their preferences result in a change in the amount of campaign contributions that each campaign receives from these groups? Using an original dataset of candidate tweets from the 114th Congress, I find that for most of these rulings, there is not an effect from a candidate's tweet on the contributions his or her campaign receives. If candidates believe that utilizing Twitter to communicate their preferences to these organized interests is an effective campaign strategy which provides financial benefits, these results suggest that they are mistaken.

Speaking and Leading With Negativity: The Strategic Use of Negative Sentiment in US Congressional Messages (with Whitney Hua)

Social media use has been increasingly prevalent in political messaging. This paper measures the extent to which negative sentiment are used in legislators’ public rhetoric and analyzes how it relates to theories of party competition. We argue that members of Congress adopt negative language strategically as a function of party competition for majority power. Using dictionary-based text analysis applied to a vast data set of over 2 million tweets from all House members of the 113th to 115th Congresses (2013-2017), we analyze how minority Congressional members utilize negative language as an electoral strategy to signal viability to constituents and regain majority status. We find that members who are in the opposing party to the president use more negative sentiment in their public rhetoric than those of the same party affiliation to the president-- this effect remains even when the member is in the majority party in a unified Congress. These findings indicate that negative language is a rhetorical weapon of the weak and that those without power will seek to utilize it in their social media communications and demonstrate that the fight for institutional power importantly shapes the way members of Congress communicate.