While organized interests employ a broad range of activities in pursuit of their goals, practitioners and scholars alike deem access, or direct contacts with policymakers, as the “gold standard” of activities. However, this type of access is difficult for empirical researchers to study because scant records of direct contacts exist. In this essay, I discuss the role of access in studies of organized interests and policymaking and describe three common approaches to the empirical study of access: official records of access, when they exist; survey self-reports by organized interests and policymakers; and experiments. I identify the strengths and limitations of each approach and provide guidance and recommendations for empirical researchers using these approaches to study access.
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I also limit my discussion to studies that utilize measures of direct contacts (or experimental analogues) as outcomes or explanatory variables. While many studies examine access through related phenomena such as campaign contributions (Bertrand et al. 2014; Fouirnaies 2018; Fouirnaies and Hall 2018; Powell and Grimmer 2016) and network connections (McCrain 2018; i Vidal et al. 2012), I exclude them from the essay because they do not grapple with the key predicament I identify—how to study access empirically when direct measures are seldom available.
Policymakers are likely reticent to release records of direct contacts not only because transparency might hinder the advantages afforded by direct contacts, but also because providing evidence of their relationships with organized interests could cause ire among a public skeptical of so-called special interests (Hibbing and Theiss-Morse (2002)).
This concern also applies to self-reports of other quantities of interest that researchers collect in surveys.
Laboratory and survey experiments also face the same survey non-response challenge as do survey self-reports. However, experiments’ internal validity ensures that the treatment effects are unbiased for the sample of respondents, and researchers can use survey weights to assess the degree to which those effects generalize to the population (see Footnote 3).
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I thank Benjamin C.K. Egerod for helpful feedback.
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Miller, D.R. Empirical approaches to the study of access. Int Groups Adv 10, 286–302 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41309-021-00126-z
- Organized interests
- Interest groups
- Research design