Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Issue Convergence Is Nothing More Than Issue Convergence

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Issue Convergence Is Nothing More Than Issue Convergence

Article excerpt


It is widely assumed that candidate issue convergence or "dialogue" is beneficial for voters in campaigns. Using a lagged weekly measure of issue convergence in political advertising about specific campaign issues from the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns, I show that dialogue, as it is currently defined by campaigns and elections scholars, is as likely to harm voters as it is to help them. These findings require scholars to think more deeply about what role, if any, issue convergence plays in deliberative campaigns.


issue convergence, political advertising, campaign effects, dialogue, deliberation, political communication

The belief that deliberation and debate are necessary for the health of a democracy is foundational in democratic political thought. For example, in his eulogy of Athens, Pericles says the period of discussion preceding a political decision in a democracy is "an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all." Voting is the most essential political decision in a democracy, which means that citizens-including candidates-should deliberate during the campaign period. This has led to calls for reforms that offer citizens an opportunity to deliberate (Ackerman and Fishkin 2005) or create deliberative "shortcuts" enabling them to vote as if they had deliberated, such as delibera- tive polls (Fishkin 1995) or ballot notations created by citizen panels (Gastil 2000), among others. Other scholars have focused on the need for deliberation among candi- dates and sought to understand how often it occurs and what gives rise to it. They typically look for "dialogue" between candidates, that is, candidates engaging the arguments of their opponents rather than talking past them or simply ignoring them (Kaplan, Park, and Ridout 2006; Lipsitz 2011; Simon 2002; Wichowsky 2008). Because deliberation is often considered to be norma- tively desirable (but see Mutz 2006), it has also been assumed that dialogue, which is a way of conceptualizing deliberation in the campaign context, is also desirable. Yet, as I will demonstrate, using a weekly lagged measure of presidential candidate issue convergence in media markets across the country, dialogue between candidates harms voters as often as it helps them. I argue that this is because dialogue, as it has been conceptualized by campaigns and elections scholars, is merely "issue con- vergence," and whereas some candidate exchanges on a topic might enlighten voters, other exchanges might (perhaps intentionally) do just the opposite. As a result, I argue that scholars need to think more deeply about the role issue convergence plays in a deliberative campaign. At the very least, they can no longer assume that issue convergence is beneficial for voters.

How We Got from Deliberation to Issue Convergence

In this section, I discuss the trajectory of scholarship that lead from deliberation to issue convergence. I begin by providing a brief sketch of deliberation as a concept and how it was applied to the study of political campaigns. I then explain how empirical scholars honed in on "dia- logue" as an essential and measurable element of candi- date deliberation.


Deliberative democrats believe that thoughtful reflection and dialogue are the heart and legitimating force of democratic governance. Deliberation1 differs from mere talk in terms of its purpose and how it is conducted. First, its goal is to enable participants to arrive at a decision that is consequential for some kind of governing process. It further requires participants to be respectful and to "constructively interact with" one another (Gutmann and Thompson 1996, 79). A respectful interaction is noncoer- cive (Dryzek 2000), allows everyone a chance to speak and be heard, and requires participants to both listen to one another and remain open minded (Fishkin 1991; Gastil 1993; Gutmann and Thompson 1996).

Another key feature of deliberation is that individuals must explain their positions in plain language that others can understand. …

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