Researchers from UC Berkeley and the University of Michigan dug up some surprising results after posing the question: How much do lawmakers really know about their voters’ political views?
“Pick an American state legislator at random, and chances are that he or she will have massive misperceptions about district views on big-ticket issues, typically missing the mark by 15 percentage points,” David Broockman and Christopher Skovron wrote in a study for the Scholarly Strategy Network originally published in 2013.
To investigate the question, the duo surveyed thousands of state legislators and compared their perceptions of voters to people’s actual views, derived from a large body of public opinion data.
Their conclusion: “legislators usually believe their constituents are more conservative than they actually are.”
On three issues — universal healthcare, same-sex marriage, and welfare — lawmakers’ assumptions about what their constituents believed were “15-20 percent more conservative, on average,” than the actual base of public support for such issues.
Most striking, both liberal and conservative lawmakers assume their voters are much further to the right than they actually are:
The typical conservative legislator overestimates his or her district’s conservatism by a whopping 20 percentage points. Indeed, he or she believes the district is even more conservative than the most right-leaning district in the entire country.
Liberals also think their constituents’ views are more conservative than they really are, but are typically only off by about five percentage points.
The research finds “no meaningful statistical relationship” between incumbency or professionalism and the accuracy of lawmakers’ perceptions.
By the end of their research, Broockman and Skovron invite the bigger question for another day: Why?
As the beginnings of an answer, the co-authors note that many scholars have found “politicians feel much more accountable to the wealthy, party leaders, or interest groups than to rank and file voters’ preferences,” and that “politically active citizens tend to be wealthier and more conservative than others.”
In other words, staying in office – the sine qua non goal for the vast majority of elected officials — is likely not perfectly aligned with representing the views of a majority of their constituents.
Broockman and Skovron nonetheless conclude on an optimistic note: “Politicians who want to represent all the people in their districts need to keep this in mind.”