Public Opinion and Elite Rhetoric

(With H. Hilbig)

Does public opinion affect the agenda of political elites? We shed light on this question by using an unusual source of information: classified governmental public opinion research. Taking advantage of a recent legal ruling, which forced the German Federal Press Office to declassify its public opinion research, we analyze whether political elites adjust their rhetoric to the content of the reports. Using a regression discontinuity design, which exploits the plausibly exogenous timing of the reports’ dissemination to cabinet members, we demonstrate that linguistic similarity between public opinion and elite speech increases markedly after a report has been issued. Similarity increases are particularly pronounced for highly politicized issues (e.g., social policy), and when the medium of elite communication is highly visible (e.g., speeches). The findings are robust to a variety of placebo and permutation tests.