Congress Thinks Voters Are Way More Conservative Than They Actually Are. Here’s Why.

You can’t always get what you want. But if you try, sometimes you’ll find, corporations get what they need. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

For a few years now, political scientists have been learning what America’s cantankerous uncles have always known: Those dang politicians are way out of touch.

In 2013, researchers from Northwestern University and Stanford found that state legislators throughout the U.S. wildly overestimated the conservatism of their constituents. Republicans were more liable to have a deluded sense of how many of their voters’ wanted to abolish the welfare state, but even Democrats had a tendency to look at their blue districts and see purple or red: On average, legislators from both parties underestimated the level of support for universal health care in their districts by more than 15 percentage points.

Now, a new study finds that members of Congress also believe that they represent staunchly conservative electorates that do not actually exist.

In August 2016, political scientists from the University of California and Columbia sent a survey to every House and Senate office’s top legislative staffers — which is to say, to the wonks who, in the paper’s phrasing, are responsible for “connecting the preferences of constituents with Members of Congress.” In it, they asked the policy professionals to estimate their constituents’ level of support for repealing Obamacare, regulating carbon dioxide, making a $305 billion investment in infrastructure, mandating universal background checks for firearm purchases, and raising the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour.

Then, they checked the staffers’ answers against district- or state-level public opinion (as measured by demographic analyses of large-sample, national surveys). The researchers summarized their findings in a New York Times op-ed this week:

[I]f we took a group of people who reflected the makeup of America and asked them whether they supported background checks for gun sales, nine out of 10 would say yes. But congressional aides guessed as few as one in 10 citizens in their district or state favored the policy. Shockingly, 92 percent of the staff members we surveyed underestimated support in their district or state for background checks, including all Republican aides and over 85 percent of Democratic aides.

The same is true for the four other issues we looked at: regulating carbon emissions to address the climate crisis, repealing the Affordable Care Act, raising the federal minimum wage and investing in infrastructure. On climate change, the average aide thought only a minority of his or her district wanted action, when in truth a majority supported regulating carbon.

Illustration: The New York Times

The study finds, predictably, that staffers have a tendency to project their own policy views onto the public. But, with the notable exception of Obamacare repeal, Democratic aides ostensibly assumed that voters’ views were to the right of their own. And “self-centered bias” can’t account for a bipartisan habit to miss wide and to the right. But the extraordinary influence that corporate lobbyists wield on Capitol Hill can. As the researchers write:

Aides who reported meeting with groups representing big business — like the United States Chamber of Commerce or the American Petroleum Institute — were more likely to get their constituents’ opinions wrong compared with staffers who reported meeting with mass membership groups that represented ordinary Americans, like the Sierra Club or labor unions. The same pattern holds for campaign contributions: The more that offices get support from fossil fuel companies over environmental groups, the more they underestimate state- or district-level support for climate action.

The study further found that “45 percent of senior legislative staffers report having changed their opinion about legislation after a group gave their Member a campaign contribution” — and that 62 percent of staffers believe that “correspondence from businesses” are “more representative of their constituents’ preferences than correspondence from ordinary constituents.”

Nevertheless, the authors suggest that Congress’s ignorance of the public’s preferences is rooted in genuine misunderstanding (as opposed to craven fealty to corporate power). In their telling, a dearth of district-level polling and voter engagement leads lawmakers to “depend heavily on meetings and relationships with interest groups to piece together a picture of what their constituents want.”

But this is an unduly generous interpretation of Congress’s intentions — or, at least, of the congressional GOP’s. When House Republicans from swing districts voted to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act last year, they knew full well that it was not what their constituents wanted. When a bill polls worse at the national level than any other piece of major legislation that’s come before Congress in three decades, you don’t need district-level data to know it isn’t popular with your voters. And in its 2018 messaging, the GOP has made its awareness of the discrepancy between its priorities for health-care policy, and those of its voters, perfectly clear: Republican lawmakers who are actively trying to repeal Obamacare’s cap on how much insurance companies can charge people with preexisting conditions for their coverage are spending millions of dollars on TV ads that assure voters they would never do such a thing.

Similarly, we know that Republicans did not write a tax bill that favored the rich over the middle class because they mistakenly believed that this was what voters wanted. Were that the case, the president and his advisers would not have assured the public, in September 2017, that the rich would gain nothing from the Republican tax plan.

This isn’t to say that congressional Republicans do not earnestly overestimate their voters’ conservatism on other issues. The staffers who took the researchers’ survey had little incentive to lie. But, by all appearances, they also have little incentive to know — or care — what their constituents actually think about fiscal and regulatory policy.

In an ideal representative democracy, the job of senior House staffers might be “connecting the preferences of constituents with Members of Congress.” But in our decidedly nonideal polity, their job could be more accurately described as “connecting the preferences of constituents — who pay close attention to the legislative process, have a proven ability to make lawmakers’ reelection bids easier or harder (depending on how responsive lawmakers are to their interests), and/or can provide lawmakers (and their staffers) with highly remunerative employment opportunities when they graduate from the public sector — with Members of Congress.”

Corporations have the time, interest, and money necessary to closely monitor the activities of state and federal legislators, send representatives to lobby them on a regular basis, and even provide staffers with ready-made legislative language. Ordinary voters do not. For this reason, if the average House member betrays the interests of the oil company based in her district, she will see her voice-mail box fill up, and campaign coffers empty out; if she betrays her median constituent’s avowed desire to see carbon pollution more tightly regulated, by contrast, said voter probably won’t even notice. (It is true that labor unions, and other mass-membership organizations, can provide ordinary Americans with some of the tools for influencing politics that they would otherwise lack. But such institutions are not nearly strong enough, at the present moment, to go toe-to-toe with corporate America — and, in the case of unions, have no purchase whatsoever on the right side of the aisle.)

If there were a big, electoral price for overestimating the conservatism of one’s constituents, then elected representatives at every level of government would not be doing so. Rather, there appears to be an advantage to deluding yourself about how right wing your constituents are on most issues. That way, you can do right by the interest groups who actually have the power to make or break your reelection, while telling yourself that you’re faithfully serving the popular will.

All of which is to say: Congress might be less confused about what its constituents truly want than political scientists are about who, in practice, Congress’s constituents truly are.

Here’s Why Congress Overestimates the Public’s Conservatism