Testing the Limits of Elite Influence on Public Opinion: An Examination of Sports Facility Referendums

Article excerpt

A great deal of scholarly research has demonstrated that elites have considerable influence over the preference formation process of individuals. What scholars understand less is just how far the influence of elites extends. We test the potential limits of elite influence by examining the public opinion dynamics that surrounded referendums raising local taxes to finance the construction of new professional sports stadiums and arenas in the United States from 1984 to August 2000. Our research concludes that the shape of elite opinion does indeed matter, with a united elite positively affecting the likelihood that referendums will be approved. An independent effect for the degree of elite unity exists even when controlling for campaign expenditures, the public's share of the cost of building sports facilities, and pre-existing public support for the proposals.

A great deal of scholarly research has demonstrated that elites have considerable influence over the preference formation process of individuals. Numerous studies have concluded that citizens regularly rely on elite cues when forming an opinion or making a political decision (see, for example: Brady and Snider-man 1985; Lupia 1994; Carmines and Kuklinski 1990; Mondak 1993). What scholars understand less is just how far the influence of elites extends. Much of the evidence is based on circumstances where there are good reasons to expect elite influence: the issues are abstract and citizens may have difficulty connecting the issue to their lives. But what happens when elites attempt to sway public opinions on issues that have direct and immediate relevance to the lives of respondents? Does elite influence extend into areas where citizens can easily become informed? Are there limits to the influence of elites?

One of the best tests of the potential limitations of elites involves the issue of sports facility referendums. While elites potentially may have an influence on the public in referendum elections because the partisan cues associated with candidate elections are absent (Magleby 1984; Zisk 1987), the use of public tax dollars to pay for a sport facility should not be an easy sell to the public because citizens are frequently averse to raising their taxes. Nor should it be assumed that citizens are dependent on elites for opinion and voting cues in such contests. Because the issue involves large sums of public money and cherished sports teams, sports facility referendums typically generate an enormous amount of controversy and debate, and extensive media coverage that overshadows other measures and races on the ballot. Because of the salient nature of the issue, the percent of the populace that knows of the issue and actually develops an opinion is likely to be larger than with many other civic issues. Finally, the arguments used in opposition to these referendums utilize themes that would appear to appeal to both conservative and liberal voters.' For these reasons, there is little ground to believe a priori that elites can easily sway the opinions of voters on this issue.

Specifically, this research examines the extent to which high levels of elite unity help secure voter approval of sports facility referendums and very low levels of elite unity help defeat such proposals. In doing so, we contribute to the understanding of the impact of elite opinion when highly salient issues are on the public's agenda.

PUBLIC OPINION AND ELITES

Many scholars have concluded that most individuals do not have the time, energy, or desire to be well informed about all aspects their world. Lippmann (1997 [1922]) argued that the citizen's political world is a pseudo-environment. This environment is created for the most part by the mass media, which gather, organize and filter events because the real environment is too big, too complex, and too fleeting for individuals to absorb directly Simon (1945) asserted that individuals do not have the time or resources to become fully informed for the purposes of decision making. …