Candidate Advertisements, Media Coverage, and Citizen Attitudes: The Agendas and Roles of Senators and Governors in a Federal System

By Atkeson, Lonna Rae; Partin, Randall W. | Political Research Quarterly, December 2001 | Go to article overview
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Candidate Advertisements, Media Coverage, and Citizen Attitudes: The Agendas and Roles of Senators and Governors in a Federal System


Atkeson, Lonna Rae, Partin, Randall W., Political Research Quarterly


We argue that the policy divisions created by a federalist structure provide a frame, helping political leaders identify or prioritize executive and legislative agendas and helping citizens in assigning political responsibility Relying upon Peterson's (1995) theory of functional federalism, we hypothesize that U.S. senators, as national-level political actors, will emphasize redistributive and international issues, while governors, as state-level political actors, will emphasize developmental policies in their work and communication with citizens and the media. Using candidate campaign advertisements, newspaper articles, and individual-level (survey) data, we demonstrate that "issue-sorting" takes place according to the functional responsibilities of the national and state governments. In particular, developmental concerns such as economics, education, the environment, and transportation are the responsibility of governors (as state elected officials), while foreign policy and redistributive issues such as Social Security and agricultural policy are the responsibility of U.S. senators (as national officials). These results demonstrate that federalism serves as a powerful frame for policy focus and responsibility.

Federalism is one of the central structural features of American politics, dividing governmental roles and responsibilities between the national government and the various state governments. While contemporary American federalism can be characterized by a great deal of political and policy overlap with shared responsibilities between the national and state governments, some distinctively national and some distinctively state/localized policy responsibilities persist. Peterson (1995) describes this policy division between governments with a "functional" perspective. Specifically, Peterson suggests that developmental policies (education, crime policies, environmental policies and infrastructure) are typically dealt with best at the state and local level, where market and political forces help discipline policy choices. In contrast, redistributive policies (welfare, Social Security, and so forth) are best dealt with at the national level, since the national government is not as susceptible to the market forces that would otherwise hinder policy choices. For the most part, this division of policy responsibilities rings true, as state governments engage in a variety of developmental policy arenas, ranging from education policy, transportation, the environment, crime and corrections, economic development, etc.1 While the national government is not absent from these arenas, it is more heavily invested in redistributive policies such as welfare, Social Security, and Medicare/Medicaid.2 Further, the national government is occupied with international/foreign concerns, which are rarely (if ever) the purview of state governments. In other words, American federalism persists as a way of dividing responsibilities between the national and state governments.

The functional policy divisions created by a federalist structure provide a frame, helping political leaders identify or prioritize executive and legislative agendas and helping citizens in assigning political responsibility. As a result, elected national-level politicians should emphasize in their work and communications with citizens and the media a nationalized, more heavily redistributive and international agenda. In contrast, state leaders and state elected officials should emphasize in their work and communications with citizens and the media a more localized, state agenda oriented around developmental policies such as education, taxes, infrastructure, and crime. Citizens should be aware, more or less, of this federal division and consequently hold national and state political leaders responsible for different policies (Fiorina 1981; Key 1966; Riker 1982). For citizens, the ability to determine policy differences comes from familiarity with the federated system and from cues sent by politicians and the media about the appropriate responsibilities of the different national and state offices.

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