via Wonkblog by Dylan Matthews on 3/4/13
Last year, a group of political scientists took a random sample of state legislators and asked them a slew of questions, most of which boiled down to: "What do your constituents think about policy?" Do they support gay marriage? Do they support Obamacare? Do they support action to combat global warming?
Friend-of-the-blog David Broockman and Christopher Skovron, graduate students at Berkeley and Michigan, respectively, have released a working paper based on that research and the findings are rather astonishing.
Broockman and Skovron find that all legislators consistently believe their constituents are more conservative than they actually are. This includes Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. But conservative legislators generally overestimate the conservatism of their constituents by 20 points. "This difference is so large that nearly half of conservative politicians appear to believe that they represent a district that is more conservative on these issues than is the most conservative district in the entire country," Broockman and Skovron write. This finding held up across a range of issues. Here, for example, are their findings for health care and same-sex marriage:
Is it just that legislators don't talk to their constituents? Nope. Broockman and Skovron tried and failed to find any relationship between the amount of time legislators spend in their districts, going to community events, and so forth, and the accuracy of their reads on their districts. And this bias afflicts not just their view of their constituents, but their positions generally. Consider these charts:
The research here is young and, as a general rule, reading too much into a single working paper is foolhardy. It'd be good, for one thing, to perform district-level surveys to confirm these findings. But the data holds against a battery of robustness checks the authors threw at it. The finding on conservative legislators in particular is so large that it's hard to imagine any subsequent research would completely overturn it. But if the findings hold, they suggest both that epistemic closure on the right is real and affects state-level policymaking, and that there is a systematic bias against liberal policies at the state level.