Dog-Whistle Politics: Multivocal Communication and Religious Appeals
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This paper explores how multivocal appeals, meaning appeals that have distinct meanings to different audiences, work with respect to religious language. Religious language is common in politics, but there is great variation in its effectiveness. I argue that multivocal appeals can resonate as religious with select audiences but have no religious content for other listeners. I test the effectiveness of multivocal and obvious religious appeals experimentally with two national samples: an ingroup that understands the religious connotations in a multivocal appeal and a religiously diverse outgroup that does not. Religious appeals are persuasive for the ingroup, but an obvious religious appeal can be politically costly by triggering negative reactions among outgroup members, while the religious meaning in a multivocal appeal eludes them. Obvious religious appeals are costly in the diverse audience because of different preferences over the appropriate role for religion in political speech.
KeywordsReligion and politics Campaigns Persuasion
I am grateful for helpful comments from Matt Barreto, John Brehm, Josh Busby, Kyle Endres, Shana Kushner Gadarian, Melissa Harris-Perry, Tali Mendelberg, Chris Parker, Nick Valentino, Penny Visser, Chris Wlezien, and three anonymous reviewers. I also received research assistance from Andrew Dilts, who helped create the campaign ads and Charles Lipson, who gamely portrayed the political candidate. This research was funded by an NSF Dissertation Improvement Grant and supported by the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics at Princeton University and the Harrington Faculty Fellows Program at UT Austin.
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