Tabitha Bonilla, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor

Northwestern University

Year of PhD: 2015

Country: United States (Illinois)

Research Interests

Elections, Election Administration, and Voting Behavior

Experimental Research

Political Communication

Political Psychology

Public Opinion

Text as Data

Human Trafficking

Campaign Promises

Issue Framing

Media Effects


Journal Articles:

(2018) The evolution of human trafficking messaging in the United States and its effect on public opinion, Journal of Public Policy

Despite a near unanimous agreement that human trafficking is a morally reprehensible practice, there is confusion around what qualifies as human trafficking in the United States. Adopting a mixed-method strategy, we examine how human trafficking is defined by the public; how contemporary (mis)understanding of human trafficking developed; and the public opinion consequence of this (mis)understanding. The definition of human trafficking has evolved over time to become nearly synonymous with slavery; however, we demonstrate that media and anti-trafficking organisations have been focussing their attention on the sexual exploitation of foreign women. We show that general public opinion reflects this skewed attention; the average citizen equates human trafficking with the smuggling of women for sexual slavery. Using a survey experiment, we find that shining light on other facets of human trafficking – the fact that human trafficking is a security problem and a domestic issue – can increase public response to the issue.

(2018) Bridging the Partisan Divide on Immigration Policy Attitudes through a Bipartisan Issue Area: The Case of Human Trafficking, Journal of Experimental Political Science

To date, while there is a rich literature describing the determinants of anti-immigrant sentiment, researchers have not identified a mechanism to reduce antipathy toward immigrants. In fact, extant research has shown that efforts to induce positive attitudes toward immigrants often backfire. What if a bridging frame strategy were employed? Can a bipartisan issue area in which there is general support act as a bridging frame to elicit more positive sentiment toward immigration among those who oppose more open immigration policies? We explore this question by conducting two survey experiments in which we manipulate whether immigration is linked with the bipartisan issue area of human trafficking. We find that in forcing individuals to reconcile the fact that a widely accepted issue position of combating trafficking also requires a reassessment of immigration policies, we can positively shift attitudes on immigration.

(2013) Elevated threat levels and decreased expectations: How democracy handles terrorist threats, Poetics

A persistent concern in democracies is that terror threats make the public willing to restrict freedoms for increased safety. But a large literature has struggled to determine how terrorist threats affect the public's policy preferences. To more credibly estimate the effects of terror threats, we exploit elevations of the U.S. government's color coded alert system. Using this design, a statistical model for texts and a new collection of news stories, we show 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. Rather, the only consistent result is 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. Instead the alerts changed the topic of conversation.

Media Appearances:

TV Appearances:

(2016) KTLA 5 News

Interview on campaign strategies and effects on public opinion.

Newspaper Quotes:

(2018) Los Angeles Times

Discussed the strategic implications of positions on aboriton.