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Research: Politicians have little idea what voters are thinking

Politicians aren’t particularly adept at knowing the views of their own constituents – and conservative politicians are the least adept of the bunch. Those are some of the major findings of a recently released research paper co-authored by a graduate student at the University of Michigan.

Chris Skovron, of U-M’s Department of Political Science, along with David Broockman, a graduate student at the University of California-Berkeley, surveyed 1,907 candidates for state legislative office in August 2012 and then again in November 2012 about what they thought their constituents’ opinions were on three issues:

-Same-sex marriage

-Universal health care

-Abolishing federal welfare programs

Bridge recently spoke with Skovron about the research, which showed conservatives and liberals alike overestimating the conservative element of their districts.

Bridge: What is political misperception?

A: Can constituents control what their legislators do? … On the one hand, a legislator can perceive what their constituents think and they can vote according to that. On the other hand, citizens can select legislators whose own views are in line with theirs through elections. So the particular question that David and I are looking at in this study is that perceptions question. Basically, do legislators and candidates for state legislative offices know what their constituents want?

Bridge: If you talk to legislators up here, they’d say ‘Hey, I hold coffee meetings with constituents. I go door to door and talk to them about issues. I go to school board, local government meetings.’ They would probably tell you … ‘Who are you to say I don’t have a good read on my constituents?’

A: The average person in the sample is off by between 15 and 20 percentage points. What it suggests to us is people just aren’t talking to everyone in their district, right? I think if you think about the ways that campaigns are structured, that makes some sense. The parties give them targets of who to talk to and these are often persuadable voters that represent moderates or their own partisans that they’re trying to turn out to vote so that’s sort of a biased subset.

And at the same time, the people who choose to contact legislators clearly are not a representative sample of everyone who lives in their district. It’s people who have strong opinions and feel like expressing them. I think it’s only natural that legislators, even if they are out in the community a lot, might get a skewed view just based on the fact that they’re not talking to a representative sample of everybody -- unless they sort of systematically knock on random doors, which I don’t think any campaigns do anymore.

Bridge: What data point or piece of analysis did you find that best illustrates this gap?

A: What we think is the most important is just the spread of the inaccuracies -- that there are some people who are extremely inaccurate in a conservative direction, some who are extremely inaccurate in a liberal direction. But what matters if you’re a citizen is what your particular representative thinks. Some people have representatives who are congruent with district preferences, others don’t. That’s something voters should think about -- and legislators should also think about whether they have an accurate read on their district or not.

Bridge: What do you think could be done to narrow this perception gap or is this just a fact of modern-day politics?

A: I don’t want to speculate too much in that area because we really don’t have much in the way of data that speaks to that. One of the striking findings though was that candidates didn’t get more accurate after the election. So we went back and we surveyed about a quarter of our respondents again in November after the 2012 election and we didn’t find that they had improved at all. So it doesn’t seem that paying attention to election results is the trick necessarily.

Bridge: How much do you think that the 2010 election, which obviously was a huge election for Republicans, big sweep for them, might have colored perceptions going into 2012 since maybe conservatives coming off of that election we’re thinking, ‘Hey, it’s a conservative country’ and for that matter liberals were probably thinking it’s fairly conservative. Do you think that stretched the data in any way?

A: Yeah, I think that definitely could play a role here. Sort of a broader story that we tell ourselves about American culture, it’s sort of a center-right nation, (Richard Nixon’s) idea of the “silent majority.”

Bridge: Did you check to see what percentage of the candidates that responded to your survey went on to win legislative office because, as you probably know, a lot of people who file to run are either very fringe or aren’t serious?

A: I don’t remember that figure right off the top of my head, but it is slightly less than half. …  We didn’t have a really serious bias against winners. … And so it’s interesting that the patterns of accuracy among those people were very similar to people who lost. The sitting legislators don’t tend to do much better than losing candidates.

Bridge: One of the things I thought was really interesting was how there appeared to be no change in candidates’ perception of the voters in their district after they had done all the things that good candidates do, the door-to-door, the meet-and-greets, those kinds of things. What did you make of that?

A: It was really surprising that knowing the election result, knowing whether they had won or lost, didn’t really make them update on their estimate. Certainly they changed, right. But as a group, the candidates didn’t get a lot better.

I don’t want to make too much of that. It was only one campaign. It was only one type of office. But yeah, it’s a little bit discouraging for those of us who might think that the way to take the temperature of your district is to say go to a lot of Rotary clubs and knock on a lot of doors.

Editor's note: This story was produced in a collaboration between Bridge Magazine and the Gongwer News Service.

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