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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Issue Ownership and Representation


Empirical results indicate that politicians exploit issue ownership—the degree to which the public trusts a political party to better handle a particular public issue (as they do with the Democrats on the environment, or with the Republicans on defense)—to enact policy that is unresponsive to changes in public opinion. In this paper, I present empirical evidence of three possible mechanisms that might link issue ownership to nonresponsiveness: the notions of issue ownership as (1) constituents’ shared preferences with the issue-owning party, particularly in a context of policy uncertainty; (2) a party’s relative competence at handling a particular issue; and (3) the greater degree of consistency of the positions taken by a party’s politicians on the issues it owns. I then develop a theoretical model that incorporates all three of these candidate mechanisms. By identifying the conditions under which equilibria exist and generating comparative statics, I find theoretical evidence supporting the competence and shared preferences hypotheses, but poor evidence for the uncertainty and consistency hypotheses.

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