The Impact of Federalism on Citizen Support for Legislative Action

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Principal investigators:

Cindy Kam

Vanderbilt University



Robert Mikos

Vanderbilt University



Sample size: 672

Field period: 07/13/2005-07/20/2005


Political elites have used the rhetoric of federalism to rally opposition to federal legislative action across a range of issues. However, systematic evidence on whether federalism arguments resonate with ordinary citizens is virtually non-existent. Our study fills this gap using evidence from a nationally representative survey experiment designed to determine whether citizens care enough about the balance of state and federal power that they will sacrifice other important considerations to protect it. We analyze the impact of citizens' policy preferences, comparative trust in state and federal governments, and federalism principles on their opinion of a proposed federal ban on physician-assisted suicide. We find that federalism-based arguments can activate federalism principles in citizen decision-making and attenuate the impact of policy preferences. Citizens will, indeed, sacrifice policy preferences at the altar of federalism. We discuss the implications of our findings in the ongoing debate over the political safeguards of federalism.


Hypothesis 1: Issue Proximity. The citizen's support or opposition to the proposed legislative action is a function of the citizen's own policy preference on the issue. The citizen will support the action that most closely resembles her own policy position.
Hypothesis 2: Trust. The citizen's support or opposition to the proposed legislative action is a function of the citizen's relative trust across state and federal governments. The citizen will defer to the level of government she trusts more.
Hypothesis 3: Federalism Principle. The citizen's support or opposition to the proposed legislative action depends upon the citizen's a priori judgments about which level of government ought to control the policy domain.
Hypothesis 4: Activation of Federalism by Elite Debate. When prompted by federalism arguments in elite discourse, citizens will place greater weight on federalism principles.

Experimental Manipulations

Subjects were randomly assigned to one of three conditions. In the baseline condition, subjects were given no additional information to support either the state's or the federal government's control over that issue. In the Federalism Argument condition, they were exposed to a federalism appeal often used by states and their supporters. These arguments are based upon content analysis of arguments actually made by
political elites. By including these arguments we can determine the
extent to which elite debate can activate federalism considerations as ordinary citizens consider proposed legislative action. The third condition includes arguments intended to persuade subjects on the substance of the issue itself. This Substantive Argument condition allows us to identify whether federalism arguments will (1) persuade citizens generally, that is, whether or not they believe a priori that the states should control the issue, or (2) persuade only those who are inclined to defer to state control of the issue.


Following each condition, each subject was asked to report on her level of support or opposition to the congressional action.

Summary of Results

The ordered probit results in Table 1 show that policy preferences are clearly consequential. The more subjects believe that physician- assisted suicide should be allowed, the more strongly they oppose the federal government's proposed ban on it. Conversely, the more subjects oppose physician-assisted suicide, the more strongly they support the federal ban.
Comparative trust also influences support for federal action. Citizens who place more trust in state as opposed to federal government are more likely to oppose the congressional law.
Likewise, citizens who place more trust in the federal government are more inclined to support the congressional law.
Finally, we see that the federalism principle, when activated by a federalism argument, has a large and statistically significant effect on support for congressional proposals. The impact of the federalism principle in the federalism argument condition is significantly higher than the impact of federalism in the baseline condition, as shown by the statistically significant coefficient on Federalism Principle x Federalism Argument Condition. Although federalism is often portrayed as a complex legal concept, the province of constitutional lawyers, the fundamentals of it, and its purported benefits, are accessible to ordinary citizens. Citizens understand federalism, but they may need elites to bring it to their attention, before it influences their opinion. The coefficient on the interaction term for Federalism Principle x Substantive Argument Condition is statistically indistinguishable from zero, buttressing our claim that the set of federalism arguments resonate distinctly with federalism principles, and do not merely persuade all respondents regardless of federalism


ur analysis shows that citizens are not single-mindedly interested in only short-term policy outcomes. Policy preferences do matter, but so does comparative trust in the state versus federal governments, and so does federalism, specifically when it is activated by elite debate.
Our results bolster the case for the political safeguards of federalism.
The conventional wisdom is that if citizens were left to their own devices, they would care little about federalism and might eventually delegate all power to the national government. Legal scholars have thus looked to the courts, or features of the national political system, to safeguard federalism. Our results show that citizens can play an important role in defending federalism. Political elites can significantly increase opposition to federal legislative action, at least among those citizens who otherwise favor state control over the issue, by invoking the rhetoric of federalism in public debate.




Kam, Cindy D. and Robert A. Mikos. "Elites talk about it, but do citizens care? The impact of federalism on public support for federal legislative action." Paper presented at the 2005 Annual Meetings of the American Political Science Association.
Kam, C. D., and R. A. Mikos. 2007. "Do citizens care about Federalism? An experimental test." Journal of Empirical Legal Studies 4:589-624.