UC Berkeley study finds politicians overestimate how conservative constituents are

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A study co-authored by a UC Berkeley researcher found that conservative politicians vastly overestimate how conservative their constituents are.

David Brookman, a doctoral candidate in the campus department of political science, teamed up with University of Michigan political science graduate student Christopher Skovron to study the relationship between politicians’ political positions and their perception of public opinion.

The researchers surveyed every candidate for state legislative office in the United States in 2012 and analyzed the relationship between the candidates’ positions and their views of constituents’ positions on universal health care, same-sex marriage and federal welfare programs.

The researchers discovered that the constituents of conservative politicians supported same-sex marriage, welfare programs and universal health care by 20 percent more than the politicians themselves had estimated.

According to campus assistant professor of political science Gabriel Lenz, the results of this study indicate an alarming trend in American governance.

“For politicians to represent their constituencies, they need to have a sense (of) their constituents’ view,” he said in an email. “The paper’s findings raise serious concerns about representative democracy on two of the most salient political issues.”

He added that researchers know surprisingly little about this issue and said the study was legitimized by the broadness of its scope.

Brookman said that the study, published Sunday, raises alarming concerns that politicians don’t seem to care much about public opinion.

“Politicians spend so much money on their campaigns that if they thought knowing public opinion was important they could ascertain it with a pretty cheap poll,” he said in an email. “I think the right question to ask is how to change politics such that they care about having accurate perceptions.”

Brookman said he wanted to look into this issue because he was interested in the effect of politicians’ perceptions of public opinion on policy.

“The effect of public opinion on public policy either needs to flow through the perceptions of sitting politicians about public opinion or through the selection of representatives that agree,” he said. “Most existing work suggests that the former mechanism is the key one but we knew very little about those perceptions empirically (before this study).”

Harmeet Dhillon, chair of the San Francisco Republican Party, said that candidates must improve their communication with constituents to better understand what voters want.

“Republican candidates need to be better informed about what motivates voters to go to the polls and incorporate more social media in campaigning to ensure that constituents actually do go vote,” she said. “Ultimately, politicians need to talk to their constituents and figure what they are deeply passionate about.”

Contact Jason Liu at [email protected]