Tabitha Bonilla Joins SESP Faculty

Tabitha Bonilla Joins SESP Faculty

Tabitha BonillaTabitha Bonilla, assistant professor of human development and social policy

Tabitha Bonilla, a political scientist who studies how messaging influences voters’ responses to political issues and candidates, has joined Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy as assistant professor of human development and social policy.

Bonilla’s work focuses on how communication influences support for public policies on controversial subjects, ranging from gun control and human trafficking to immigration. She is also interested in how identity helps people interpret political messages, and she is working on a book that examines the ways broken campaign promises affect human behavior.

Bonilla, who is also a fellow at Northwestern's Institute for Policy Research, is currently teaching a new class based in part on her research on public opinion and human trafficking published earlier this year in the Journal of Public Policy. Students are exploring how the media and anti-trafficking organizations perpetuate a narrow definition of trafficking – the sexual exploitation of foreign women – and how this can affect public support for anti-trafficking policy and strategic responses.

Other related research, published in the Journal of Experimental Political Science, has explored whether the problem of human trafficking, a bipartisan issue, can help bridge the political divide by generating more positive feelings among those who oppose more open immigration policies. “We found we can help shift attitudes on immigration when people are asked to reconcile that closing borders contributes to an environment where trafficking is easier---so if we want to combat trafficking, we have to reassess immigration policies,” she said.

Born and raised in Montana – the fourth oldest of 11 children in the family -- Bonilla was selected for the Minority Introduction to Engineering, and Science (MITES) program, a rigorous six-week residential summer program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that introduces promising minority high school seniors to engineering and science.

She graduated from MIT with degrees in political science and biology and earned her doctorate from Stanford University. Before coming to SESP, she worked as a research assistant professor at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research. She has also been a post-doctoral scholar and teaching fellow at the University of Southern California.

Recently, Bonilla won the APSA Fund for Latino Scholarship, which encourages and supports recruiting, retaining, and promoting Latina/o political scientists and research on Latino politics in the United States.

Broken Campaign Promises

Bonilla’s book, The Effect of Campaign Promises on Voter Behavior takes a deep dive into how voters respond to campaign promises. She finds that some promises polarize how voters feel about politicians by “attracting similarly-positioned voters and strongly repelling voters who disagree with a candidate's position,” she says.

Broken campaign promises have an incredibly strong negative effect on what voters think of candidates, in part, because voters see promise breakers as less honest and less likely to follow through in the future than candidates who more weakly took the same position. 

Bonilla has also looked at how promises influence our opinion of candidates, both before and after an election. "Promises polarize voter opinions of candidates in both cases and they also influence voter assessments of both how likely the elected official will follow through on an issue and their honesty,” she said. “Importantly this suggests there is more nuance induced by promises than was originally understood,” Bonilla added.

Another ongoing body of work examines the effect of appealing to a voter’s ethnicity. Using two experiments specifically looking at appeals to African Americans and Latinos, she found that voters can view a promise of “supporting the community” as pandering and prefer the candidate only when they show they are committed to the issues affecting the community. Interestingly, respondents believe both candidates to be able to represent the Latino community's best interests. 

Mass media and public opinion

In a study published in Poetics, Bonilla examined whether terror threats make the public willing to restrict freedom for increased safety. Using elevations of the U.S. government's color-coded alert system, a statistical model for texts and a new collection of news stories, she showed that media outlets allocate substantially more attention to terrorism after an alert. The alerts have, however, only a limited effect on the public. 

“The terror alerts raise the public's perceived likelihood of a terror attack, but opinion about President Bush's job performance, preferences for foreign intervention, or willingness to restrict civil liberties changes little in response to the alerts,” she said.

The only consistent result was decreased economic expectations---consistent with the strong economic downturn after the 9/11 attacks and the types of stories published after the terror alerts are elevated. “Terror alerts, then, did not exercise direct influence on the public's policy preferences,” she said. “Instead the alerts changed the topic of conversation.” 

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 10/14/19