Can Deliberative Minipublics Influence Public Opinion? Theory and Experimental Evidence

Date01 September 2018
Published date01 September 2018
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18Y3oJQwtufOHR/input 755508PRQXXX10.1177/1065912918755508Political Research QuarterlyIngham and Levin
Political Research Quarterly
2018, Vol. 71(3) 654 –667
Can Deliberative Minipublics Influence
© 2018 University of Utah
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Public Opinion? Theory and
DOI: 10.1177/1065912918755508
Experimental Evidence
Sean Ingham1 and Ines Levin2
Deliberative minipublics are small groups of citizens who deliberate together about a policy issue and convey their
conclusions to decision makers. Theorists have argued that deliberative minipublics can give observers evidence about
counterfactual, “enlightened” public opinion—what the people would think about an issue if they had the opportunity
to deliberate with their fellow citizens. If the conclusions of a deliberative minipublic are received in this spirit and
members of the public revise their opinions upon learning them, then deliberative minipublics could be a means of
bringing actual public opinion into closer conformity with counterfactual, enlightened public opinion. We formalize a
model of this theory and report the results of a survey experiment designed to test its predictions. The experiment
produced evidence that learning the conclusions of a deliberative minipublic influenced respondents’ policy opinions,
bringing them into closer conformity with the opinions of the participants in the deliberative minipublic.
deliberative minipublic, deliberative democracy, deliberative poll, partisan cues
The ideal of a deliberative democracy, in which public
think about an issue if they had deliberated and informed
opinion reflects the exchange of reasons and deliberation
themselves about the issue. Their incorporation into the
among free and equal citizens, is widely embraced, but its
democratic process could have a salutory effect on actual
practical implementation raises hard questions. One solu-
public opinion because their policy conclusions could have
tion involves “deliberative minipublics”: small groups of
recommending force for outside observers, serving as
ordinary citizens who deliberate together about a policy
imperfect, but informative signals of what observers them-
issue before reaching a binding decision or conveying
selves might conclude about a policy if they had the same
their opinions to decision makers. Deliberative minipub-
opportunity to engage in meaningful deliberation as the
lics are not mere thought experiments; in the past two
members of the deliberative minipublic. Outside observers
decades, dozens have been convened for various pur-
who treat their conclusions as such signals would adjust
poses, from the review of ballot initiatives to the design
their opinions accordingly.
of constitutional reforms. The most studied examples
In many cases, the ability of deliberative minipublics
include James Fishkin’s Deliberative Polls, the 2004
to influence the opinions of outside observers—either
British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly (BCCA), and the
the public or policymakers—is the only mechanism by
Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR) in Oregon. These and
which they could possibly affect policy, as they are rarely
other deliberative minipublics continue to generate vested with formal decision-making power. Thus,
debate among scholars (Chambers 2003; Dahl 1989;
whether they have this ability is crucial to any assess-
Fishkin 2009; Fung 2003; Gastil 2000; Goodin and
ment of their potential role in the democratic process.
Dryzek, 2006; Lafont 2015; Niemeyer 2011; Warren and
Despite its importance, only a few studies have addressed
Gastil 2015; Warren and Pearse 2008).
the question.
How might deliberative minipublics advance the values
deliberative democrats embrace? By definition, not all citi-
1University of California San Diego, La Jolla, USA
zens participate in deliberative minipublics. Nonetheless,
2University of California, Irvine, USA
they could in theory have effects on public opinion similar
to more inclusive deliberative processes. This is because
Corresponding Author:
Sean Ingham, Department of Political Science, University of California
deliberative minipublics purport to reveal the counterfac-
San Diego, 9500 Gilman Dr., La Jolla, CA 92093, USA.
tual “enlightened” public opinion—what the public would

Ingham and Levin
This paper makes two contributions. The first is theo-
Two other prominent examples of deliberative mini-
retical. Political theorists have given informal explana-
publics are the 2004 BCCA and the CIR in Oregon. In the
tions for why deliberative minipublics might influence
BCCA, 161 residents of British Columbia were recruited,
the opinions of outside observers. Building on this litera-
almost all of them by stratified random sampling,2 to
ture, we formalize a model of a signaling mechanism for
deliberate over the course of ten months about reforms to
a deliberative minipublic’s influence. The model clarifies
the province’s electoral system. They were authorized to
the reasons for expecting deliberative minipublics to
submit a proposal for an alternative system to voters in a
influence public opinion and shows that these reasons are
binding referendum. A majority of referendum voters
more widely applicable and robust than previous infor-
approved their proposal for a version of single transfer-
mal discussions of the theory would lead one to believe.
able vote, but it failed to clear the supermajority threshold
The second contribution of the paper is empirical. Hardly
the legislature had stipulated in advance (see Warren and
any studies have tested the expectation among normative
Pearse 2008).
theorists that deliberative minipublics could influence the
The CIR in Oregon, begun in 2010, uses near-random
general public. We designed a survey experiment to test
sampling to recruit, from Oregon’s list of registered vot-
for this ability. The survey experiment tested whether
ers, two dozen panelists who deliberate together for five
learning about a real-world deliberative minipublic and
days on upcoming ballot initiatives. After deliberating,
its policy conclusions influenced respondents’ policy
they write up a one-page statement that is included in vot-
opinions, as our signaling theory of deliberative minipub-
ers’ pamphlets. The statement summarizes the panel’s
lics predicts. The results of the experiment provide evi-
factual findings and indicates how many members sup-
dence that deliberative minipublics do have the ability to
port or oppose an initiative as well as their stated reasons
influence public opinion. This conclusion comes with a
for doing so (see Gastil, Knobloch, and Richards 2015).
caveat, however. Among observers who are also made
In all three of these examples, participants engage in
aware of where the major parties stand on the policy
structured deliberation, receive informational briefing
issue, the influence of deliberative minipublics may be
materials, and hear testimony from expert witnesses or
limited to independents.1
policy advocates. The BCCA had formal agenda-setting
This caveat notwithstanding, on the whole, the evi-
power, but in most other cases, deliberative minipublics
dence from the survey experiment is consistent with the
do not have any policy-making powers. The only mecha-
signaling theory of deliberative minipublics. As with
nism by which they can hope to influence policy is by
almost any experiment, questions remain about the causal
influencing the opinions of decision makers or the public.
mechanism at work, and whether the particular mecha-
Why might one expect them to have such influence?
nism hypothesized in the signaling model was responsi-
Theorists have argued that “citizens may come to sup-
ble for the observed effect. But experimental evidence of
port the substantive policy findings of a minipublic
the ability of deliberative minipublics to influence public
because that position is the product of reasoned discussion
opinion is important—and scant—even if further research
and open participation” (Fung 2003, 352). Knowing what
is needed to determine the causal mechanism at work.
a group of citizens concluded about a policy after weigh-
ing expert testimony and deliberating on its merits may
Deliberative Minipublics in Theory
convey information to observers about what the observers
and Practice
would conclude if they were better informed. The findings
of a deliberative minipublic can serve as informational
The idea of a deliberative minipublic has generated inter-
shortcuts for citizens who are relatively uninformed about
est among democratic theorists over the past two decades
the policies under debate (Ferejohn 2008; Gastil 2000;
in part because of the many real-world implementations
Gastil 2014; MacKenzie and Warren 2012; Warren and
of the idea.
Gastil 2015). They may serve as an alternative to partisan
The best-studied example is James Fishkin’s cues and endorsements from special interest groups.
Deliberative Poll (Fishkin 1995, 2009; Merkle 1996;
Fishkin et al. (2015) propose creating deliberative mini-
Sturgis et al. 2005). A random sample of a target popula-
publics with the authority to review and publicize endorse-
tion is invited to participate in the event, which takes
ments of ballot initiatives. The argument,...

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