Who do representatives represent?

Earlier this month, a study by political science graduate students at Berkeley and the University of Michigan uncovered a fascinating fact: By a considerable margin, candidates for state legislatures think the voters of their districts are more conservative than they actually are.

Maybe it’s not surprising that conservative candidates would overestimate the conservatism of their districts; we all want to believe that our ideas are popular, and it’s human nature to hang around with people who agree with you. But strikingly, even liberal candidates overestimate the popularity of conservative views.

The results are summed up in these two graphs:

They’re a little hard to read, but gist is that if you ask politicians how much support universal health care or same-sex marriage has in their district, and then compare that result to polls of actual voters, conservative politicians underestimate the public’s support for these liberal proposals by about 20 points — approximately, the authors note, the difference between California and Alabama. And liberal politicians underestimate by a smaller, but still significant, margin.

Most politicians appear to believe they are representing constituents who are considerably different than their actual constituents.

This happens despite the fact that polling has become ubiquitous and relatively cheap compared to other campaign expenses.

in an era when correctly ascertaining district opinion would represent little burden for most politicians, American politicians appear to operate under massive misperceptions about their constituents’ demands that they make little effort to correct.

The authors also tested a fairly extreme conservative proposal: “Abolish all federal welfare programs.” Nationally, only about 13% agree with this statement. But conservative politicians, on average, think almost 40% of Americans agree, while liberal politicians imagine that 25% do.

Maybe this generalized myopia explains why universal background checks on gun buyers are hard to pass, even though polls consistently show 70-90% of the public supports them. A background-check proposal may not pass in Minnesota, despite a local poll showing 72% public support. (79% favor the idea in Washington state and 90% in Ohio.) A Republican Minnesota legislator simply knows that such a result can’t be true.

“There is a lot of opposition,” said Cornish. “I think the survey is bogus. If you have legislators who believe that 70 or 80 percent were in favor of this, you would think they would vote for it.”

You would, wouldn’t you?

Similarly, polls consistently show large majorities in favor of reducing the deficit by closing tax loopholes that favor the rich or cutting defense rather than Social Security or Medicare, but Congress seems to be leaning the other way.

The authors didn’t investigate the cause of this pro-conservative perception bias, attributing it mostly to political mythology like Richard Nixon’s “silent majority”. But Salon’s David Sirota wonders if politicians are in fact answering a different question: Maybe they’re not estimating public opinion in their districts as a whole, but support among the people they actually represent — the wealthy. Being wealthy themselves, most politicians enter politics “unfamiliar with their constituencies”. Then things get worse.

Ensconced in a bubble of conservative-minded corporate lobbyists and mega-donors, they come to wrongly assume that what passes for a mainstream position in that bubble somehow represents a consensus position in the larger world.

The electoral process, of course, is supposed to be the panacea – it is supposed to pop that bubble and force a connection between the representative and the represented. However, because getting elected to office is now less about town meetings than about buying expensive television ads, even the campaign process fails to familiarize politicians with rank-and-file voters.

This would match the results in a seminal paper by Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels

In almost every instance, senators appear to be considerably more responsive to the opinions of affluent constituents than to the opinions of middle-class constituents, while the opinions of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent statistical effect on their senators’ roll call votes. Disparities in representation are especially pronounced for Republican senators, who were more than twice as responsive as Democratic senators to the ideological views of affluent constituents.

Maybe that’s why liberal politicians’ assessment of their constituents’ views are somewhat more accurate, if also skewed: Liberal politicians aren’t any more perceptive than conservative ones, they’re just slightly less responsive to the wealthy.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Bobby  On March 11, 2013 at 11:57 am

    I think it’s the fear of one-issue voters that drives the legislative conservatism. If an issue has 75% popular support, but 5% of the opposition WILL vote against you if you take the majority stand, politicians aren’t willing to lose that 5%. Sum up 3 or 4 wedge issues like that and you’ve lost an election.

    • sl  On March 16, 2013 at 9:24 am

      But doesn’t that suggest that politicians KNOW that they’re voting for the minority view? They know it’s a minority view, but they vote for it anyway as a stratigic decision.

      This article suggests that they don’t know what the majority view actually is.

  • Kimc  On March 11, 2013 at 9:06 pm

    How do we get this information to the legislators who need to know it?


  • By Alms from the Poor | The Weekly Sift on March 11, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    […] “Who Do Representatives Represent?” looks at a fascinating new study: Politicians on both sides tend to think their districts are more conservative than they actually are. An earlier study said that legislators’ votes are influenced mainly by the opinions of the wealthy, so I wondered this is all one phenomenon: Maybe politicians correctly estimate the positions of the constituents they really represent — the rich. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: