High-ranking convention office workers make very vague assumptions about what voters in their districts really want when it comes to politics. They tend to believe that voters support a much more conservative policy than they actually do. This startling misperception is largely explained by the disproportionate attention paid to lawmakers and their helpers, who use donors and special interest groups.
These are the results of a new paper published in the American Political Science Review by Alexander Hertel-Fernandez of Columbia University and Matto Mildenberger and Leah C. Stokes of the University of California at Santa Barbara.
While voters have long considered that members of Congress are too focused on the needs of particular interests and public contact, the paper provides some of the most convincing evidence that these perceptions are broadly accurate.
In August 2016, the authors sent a poll to the chiefs of staff and the legislative directors of all chambers and the Senate. They were directed against these high-ranking officials because they are largely responsible for setting the legislative agenda of an office: they play "a crucial role in the political decision-making process and link constituent preferences with members of Congress," as the authors put it.
In one section of the survey, employees were asked to rate public support in their own districts (or states in the case of senators' aides) for five policy proposals: repeal of Obamacare, raising the minimum wage to $ 12 an hour, general implementation Background checks for weapons. Regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant and invest $ 305 billion in infrastructure improvements over a five-year period. It is reasonable to expect that a congressional advisor would understand constituents' opinions on these issues, as Congress voted on bills related to these issues last year.
The authors compared helpers' responses to actual district-level public opinion on issues measured by major national surveys such as the Cooperative Congressional Election Study. The results showed a clear separation.
The Aides estimates of public support for the proposals were far from the baseline. "In none of the five areas do employees estimate the preferences of their members with a degree of relative or absolute accuracy," the authors write. Legislative assistants in Republican offices particularly appreciated the support of their constituents for different policy areas.
For example, on the issue of background checks on weapons, employees in Republican offices underestimated public support by 49 percentage points. The Democrats were also underestimated by 11 percentage points. Republican employees also underestimated support for regulation of carbon dioxide, infrastructure spending and minimum wage increases of 20 percentage points or more. The Democrats underestimated support for this policy by five to nine percentage points.
However, there was one problem where Democrat members were more aloof: the lifting of Obamacare. The Democrats underestimated support for lifting the Affordable Care Act by 24 percentage points, while Republicans overestimated support by 10 percentage points.
Overall, the researchers found that employees in democratic offices better understood public opinion in their districts with a margin of about 13 percentage points. However, with the exception of the abolition of Obamacare, the Democrats were on the side of their republican counterparts in assuming that their voters were more conservative than they actually were.
"Overall, we find a conservative bias in employee ratings," the authors write.
What drives these legal prejudices? The paper offers some hints. The authors examined whether assistants in more politically competitive districts valued their voters' preferences better than those in safer districts – they did not. The same applies to the many years of experience of the employees.
However, they found that, like each of us, Congressional advisers believe that everyone else thinks as they think. If a particular assistant supported a policy, they tended to think that it was the same for voters, regardless of whether that was true.
However, perhaps the most significant factor that the researchers identified was the role of interest groups. The survey questions revealed a number of important findings.
First, aid workers, who said that politics was more focused on economic interest groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce or the American Petroleum Institute, had a poorer understanding of constituents' preferences as helpers who relied more on groups than their members from the association brought in populations like the Sierra Club or the League of Conservationists. Remarkably, these business-oriented groups tend to support conservative policies, which may explain some of the conservative prejudices of the aides in their estimates.
Second, the researchers found that assistants in offices receiving more money from corporate interests rated the preference of constituents worse. "45% of the legislators in the Legislature report that they changed their opinion on the legislation after a group had given their member an election campaign," the paper said.
In other words, money talks and congressional staff are listening – even if it means they are less responsive to their constituents' needs.
Perhaps the most worrying finding in the survey, however, was that "employees interpret corporate correspondence as more representative of the preferences of their member states than those of ordinary constituents." The poll prompted employees to receive letters about a policy from either " Employees of a large corporation "in their districts or" constituents "and see to what extent these letters represent public opinion in their districts. Sixty-two percent of employees said they would view employees' letters as representing public opinion, while only 34 percent of respondents said so from letters from ordinary citizens.
All in all, the study paints a picture of a congress that is not in contact with the Americans – with the perception of public opinion being turned to the right by the influence of deep-lobbying lobbyists. The authors say the best way to combat these distortions is to increase public participation.
"Political measures can not end on Election Day" Co-author Matto Mildenberger wrote in a tweet on Thursday. "Citizens have to write long after the interludes, call and meet the elected officials and their staff."