Political Behavior

, Volume 40, Issue 3, pp 681–709 | Cite as

The Exaggerated Life of Death Panels? The Limited but Real Influence of Elite Rhetoric in the 2009–2010 Health Care Debate

  • Daniel J. HopkinsEmail author
Original Paper


Experiments demonstrate that elites can influence public opinion through framing. Yet outside laboratories or surveys, real-world constraints are likely to limit elites’ ability to reshape public opinion. Additionally, it is difficult to distinguish framing from related processes empirically. This paper uses the 2009–2010 health care debate, coupled with automated content analyses of elite- and mass-level language, to study real-world framing effects. Multiple empirical tests uncover limited but real evidence of elite influence. The language Americans use to explain their opinions proves generally stable, although there is also evidence that the public adopts the language of both parties’ elites symmetrically. Elite rhetoric does not appear to have strong effects on Americans’ overall evaluations of health care reform, but it can influence the reasons they provide for their evaluations. Methodologically, the automated analysis of elite rhetoric and open-ended questions shows promise in distinguishing framing from other communication effects and illuminating elite-mass interactions.


Health care reform Public opinion Automated content analysis Framing effects 



The author gratefully acknowledges feedback or recommendations from Michael Bailey, Andrea L. Campbell, Lee Drutman, Bill Gormley, Justin Grimmer, Justin Gross, Jacob Hacker, Danny Hayes, Gary King, David Konisky, Jonathan M. Ladd, Ben Lauderdale, Thomas Leeper, Marc Meredith, Burt Monroe, Hans Noel, Brendan Nyhan, Kalind Parish, Andrew Reeves, John Sides, and Brandon Stewart.

Supplementary material

11109_2017_9418_MOESM_ESM.pdf (281 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (pdf 280 KB)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political Science and Leonard Davis Institute of Health EconomicsUniversity of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaUSA

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