Kerri Milita, Ph.D.

Associate Professor

Illinois State University

Year of PhD: 2014

Country: United States (Illinois)

About Me:

Kerri Milita is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Illinois State University. Her research is focused on direct democracy in the U.S. In particular, she studies the relationship between state legislatures and ballot measures. Namely, why have some states placed heavy restrictions on the public's ability to use the initiative process while other legislatures have remained relatively hands-off? She also studies congressional elections, looking at factors that determine whether candidates speak clearly or ambiguously on key issues of the day and how strategic position-taking shapes public beliefs about a candidate's integrity and ability to represent the constituency.

Research Interests

Direct Democracy

Legislative Politics

Congressional Elections

Public Policy

Election Laws

Candidate Position-Taking

Candidate Rhetoric


Text as Data

Automated Text Analysis

Elections, Election Administration, and Voting Behavior

Campaigns And Elections

Referendums, Elections, Voting


Elite Rhetoric

Countries of Interest

United States


Journal Articles:

(2021) Ambiguous Rhetoric and Legislative Accountability, The Journal of Politics

Work on candidate positioning suggests that ambiguous statements help candidates by broadening their appeal and providing leeway to take different positions once in office. While experimental research has explored the electoral effects posited by the first, empirical testing of the second is lacking. As such, we use two original survey experiments (a national sample and a convenience sample) to show that contrary to conventional wisdom, ambiguity may not shield a legislator from the backlash that comes from eventually taking a position with which voters disagree. In addition, we find that a candidate’s rhetorical strategy matters most for social and cultural issues that represent core beliefs and values. In sum, our work makes important advances in the study of the longer-term effects of campaign rhetoric and suggests that if an issue cannot be avoided, there may be little to gain from attempting to obscure one’s true issue position.

(2020) Social Media and the Changing Information Environment: Sentiment Differences in Read Versus Recirculated News Content, Public Opinion Quarterly

There is reason to believe that an increasing proportion of the news consumers receive is not from news producers directly but is recirculated through social network sites and email by ordinary citizens. This may produce some fundamental changes in the information environment, but the data to examine this possibility have thus far been relatively limited. In the current paper, we examine the changing information environment by leveraging a body of data on the frequency of (a) views, and recirculations through (b) Twitter, (c) Facebook, and (d) email of New York Times stories. We expect that the distribution of sentiment (positive-negative) in news stories will shift in a positive direction as we move from (a) to (d), based in large part on the literatures on self-presentation and imagined audiences. Our findings support this expectation and have important implications for the information contexts increasingly shaping public opinion.

(2019) Battleground States and Local Coverage of American Presidential Campaigns, Political Research Quarterly

Analyses of television news and major newspapers have led to the critique that “the media” ignore the issues in campaigns, which could explain studies that show limited effects for media coverage on knowledge. These studies overlook great variation in the quantity and quality of news coverage in local information environments. Using data collected from local newspaper websites during the 2012 American presidential election, we show the quality and quantity of local news campaign coverage differ substantially between battleground and nonbattleground states. In an effort to differentiate themselves from other news outlets, newspapers in battleground states play up the local angle (e.g., candidate visits), resulting in less attention to issues in their stories. These findings suggest the voters most important to the election outcome (i.e., those in battleground states) may have less information on candidate issue positions available within their local media market.

(2019) How Gender Affects the Efficacy of Discussion as an Information Shortcut, Political Science Research and Methods

There are a number of observed gender differences in the frequency of political discussion, perceived levels of expertise, and importantly, openness to persuasion. This article explores the consequences of these differences for political choices. Given the difficulty in separating influence from homophily with observational data, this paper relies on a group-based experiment. Results suggest that when selecting between candidates, women are more likely to accept information from others, even if the information in the signals is not helpful. Men, on the other hand, often ignore outside signals in favor of sticking with their own choices even when outside signals would be helpful to their decision-making. A reanalysis of a previously published experiment on social communication leads to similar gender differences. (With Yanna Krupnikov, John Barry Ryan, and Elizabeth Connors.)

(2019) It Could Happen to You: How Perceptions of Personal Risk Shape Support for Social Welfare Policy in the American States, Journal of Public Policy

Is public support for social welfare programs’ contingent on an individual’s exposure to risk? Prior work has examined whether tough economic times lead people to “reach out” (i.e. become more accepting of government expansion of social welfare programs) or “pull back” (i.e. become less supportive of welfare). However, these studies do not account for the conditional relationship between an individual’s exposure to risk and his or her risk orientation. Using new survey data, we find that an individual’s risk orientation moderates the relationship between risk exposure and public support for welfare spending. When individuals perceive exposure to economic risk, those who are risk averse are highly supportive of welfare expansion; those who are risk acceptant become less supportive. Broadly, these findings suggest that public support for welfare spending is contingent on whether an individual perceives exposure to risk and, if so, the individual’s propensity to tolerate that risk.

(2018) Clear as Black and White: the Effects of Ambiguous Rhetoric Depend on Candidate Race, The Journal of Politics

Campaign advisers and political scientists have long acknowledged the benefits of ambiguous position-taking. We argue, however, that these benefits do not extend to black candidates facing non-black voters. When a white candidate makes vague statements, these voters are likely to project their own policy positions onto the candidate, increasing support for the candidate. But they are less likely to extend black candidates the same courtesy. We test these claims with an original two-wave survey experiment on a national sample of non-black voters. We find that ambiguity boosts support for white candidates but not for black candidates. In fact, black candidates who make ambiguous statements are actually punished for doing so by racially prejudiced voters. These results clarify limits on the utility of the electoral strategy of ambiguity; they also identify a key condition under which racial prejudice shapes voter behavior.

(2018) Outcomes & Outputs: Long-term Effects of TANF on Poverty & Caseload Enrollment, Public Policy and Administration

The Welfare Reform Legislation of 1996 is often cited as one of President Clinton’s most notable achievements, as this law was followed by sizable reductions in states’ welfare loads. Did this policy devolution lead to lower state poverty—as was suggested by reform advocates? We re-examine the effects of the new welfare regime on state-level poverty and welfare enrollment between 1996 and 2012. This is important to complement existing studies of individual-level experience with the welfare system. Our analysis confirms that the federal-to-state welfare transition eased the states’ caseload burden and poverty rate. We also find evidence that the relationship between welfare restrictiveness and caseload burden was strongest in the period before the recession, and with the inclusion of post-recession years, higher level restrictiveness may have little to no effect on reducing caseload. While state decisions to increase welfare restrictiveness did reduce poverty, our results show no added benefit to those with the highest levels of welfare restrictions. These findings reinforce the need to match policy goals to social outcomes, rather than relying on output measures such as caseload reduction.

(2017) Helicopter Parenting and the Policy Attitudes of College Students, PS: Political Science and Politics

Helicopter parenting is a phenomenon that is attracting sizable attention from university administrators and instructors. We examine the implications of helicopter parenting for both the political science classroom and for public opinion. Using a survey conducted at multiple universities in the United States, we find that helicopter parenting has a significant impact on the policy attitudes of college students. Specifically, students with helicopter parents are more likely to express support for both government surveillance and nanny state policies than are students without helicopter parents. Given the growing trend of helicopter parenting, these findings will likely have substantial implications for both the political science classroom and public opinion in the near future.

(2017) The Effects of Ambiguous Rhetoric in Congressional Elections, Electoral Studies

Ambiguity -- whereby candidates make deliberately unclear position statements on key issues -- has long been touted by pundits and political scientists as a smart campaign strategy. In this manuscript, two experiments suggest the usefulness of ambiguous rhetoric on salient issues is overstated. Voters rely on well-publicized partisan positions on political issues as heuristics, a factor that has often been overlooked by the existing literature. This means that an issue will inform a voter's decision even if the candidate speaks ambiguously on it. Further, while ambiguity does not change the voters' perceptions of the candidate's position relative to silence, it does raise the salience of the issue that candidate is attempting to minimize. Hence, for candidates who wish to hide unfavorable positions, silence is a better rhetorical strategy than ambiguity.

(2017) Beyond Roll-Off: Individual Level Abstention on Ballot Measure Voting, Journal of Elections Public Opinion and Parties

Why do individuals who have turned out to vote abstain from voting on certain ballot measures? Previous work examines abstention at the aggregate level by observing ballot roll-off, and focuses on the readability of the ballot summary for a measure as the primary determinant of whether individuals will abstain. In contrast, I hypothesize that three individual-level factors interact with the accessibility (i.e. ease or difficulty) of a ballot measure’s issue content to influence one’s propensity to abstain. Individuals with low issue information, who are risk averse, and who attach low importance to the issue should be more likely to abstain from voting than those with high knowledge, who are risk-acceptant, and who attach high importance to the issue. Furthermore, the impact of each of these individual-level traits strengthens as the issue raised in the measure becomes increasingly complex. I find strong empirical evidence for these hypotheses using an experimental design.

(2015) Election Laws and Agenda Setting: How Election Law Restrictiveness Shapes the Complexity of State Ballot Measures, State Politics and Policy Quarterly

Recently, many U.S. states that allow citizen initiatives have passed laws designed to make it more difficult for an initiative to qualify for the ballot (e.g., by increasing the number of signatures required to get on the ballot), thereby making it harder for citizens to bypass the legislature and make direct changes to public policy. Such laws have reduced both the number of measures that make the ballot and the number that pass on Election Day. I show that laws governing access of initiatives to the ballot also shape the policy agenda; provisions making it harder for proposals to get on the ballot decrease the complexity of the initiatives on the ballot. As less complex initiatives are more likely to be understood by voters and voters are reluctant to vote for measures they do not understand, more restrictive laws actually increase the likelihood that an initiative will pass.

(2014) Nowhere to Run, Nothing to Hide, or Nothing to Lose? Candidate Position-Taking in U.S. House Elections, Political Behavior

If candidates do not state clear issue positions, then voters cannot anticipate how the candidates will govern if elected nor hold candidates accountable for breaking campaign pledges. Yet, previous research argues electoral incentives lead candidates to avoid discussing the key issues of the day. Even though silence on issues is the modal campaign strategy, this paper argues that candidates systematically make clear issue statements on occasion. We identify three variables that predict whether a candidate will address an issue and the clarity of the candidate’s stance on that issue: (i) the public salience of an issue; (ii) ideological congruence between candidate and district; and (iii) candidate quality. This argument is tested using data on candidate position-taking regarding the Iraq War and gay marriage collected from the campaign websites of U.S. House candidates in 2006 and 2008.

(2010) Testing the Effects of Ballot Access Reform on Non-Major Party Electoral Fortunes: the Case of Florida's Revision 11, American Review of Politics

The research tests the effects of egalitarian ballot access on the electoral fortunes of non-major party candidates for U.S. House seats. In 1998, Florida voters passed an amendment to the state constitution that removed all auxiliary barriers to ballot access for non-major parties. In bivariate and multiple regression testing, the reform is associated with a statistically significant increase in the number of non-major party candidates and their vote-share. The change, however, is small. Moreover, these increased contestation rates and vote support occur primarily in the first election cycle after the reform was adopted. Output from Tobit and GLS regression suggests that the best case scenario is about a 1.3 percent increase in the non-major party vote share in U.S. House races in Florida. The study concludes that states pursuit of egalitarian ballot access laws will not likely create substantive expansion of minor-party electoral success.

(2010) The Partisan Duopoly in U.S. House Elections: an Analysis of Minor Party Failure, 1976-2006, Representation

The research examines the dearth of minor party representation in the contemporary US House of Representatives. It explores the influence of state election laws concerning ballot access, fusion candidacies, and party primaries on non-major party voting. Results suggest these impediments are of limited significance in expanding the scope of electoral competition. Instead, a component of the secret ballot reform, initiated in the nineteenth century, which prevents distribution of party ballots, has likely had the greatest effect on minor party success.

Media Appearances:


(2018) Political Research Digest

State and local politics are losing ground to national politics in the minds of Americans. What do we learn from nationalized coverage and what do we increasingly ignore?

(2016) Flash Forward

What if everyone voted on everything?