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ANES Scales Often Do Not Measure What You Think They Measure

Political surveys often include multi-item scales to measure individual predispositions such as authoritarianism, egalitarianism, or racial resentment. Scholars use these scales to examine group differences in these predispositions, comparing women to men, rich to poor, or Republicans to Democrats. Such research implicitly assumes that, say, Republicans’ and Democrats’ responses to the egalitarianism scale measure the same construct in the same metric. This research rarely evaluates whether the data possess the characteristics necessary to justify this equivalence assumption. We present a framework to test this assumption and correct scales when it fails to hold. Examining 13 commonly used scales on the 2012 and 2016 American National Elections Studies, we find widespread violations of the equivalence assumption. These violations often bias the estimated magnitude or direction of theoretically important group differences. These results suggest we must reevaluate what we think we know about the causes and consequences of authoritarianism, egalitarianism, and other predispositions.