Brief 43: The Effect of Politicians’ Positions on Constituent Opinion in the United States

The authors investigate a long-standing question in the study of politics: are politicians merely constrained by public opinion or do they actually shape it? They conduct an experiment where state legislators send letters to constituents with their positions on randomly assigned key issues. Constituents fill out a survey before and after receiving the letter to track how their positions on these specific issues change, revealing that politicians do, in fact, shape public opinion.

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Category: Elections

Tags: public opinion, voting, Elections, representative democracy, position adoption, United States

Date of Publication: Sunday, January 1, 2017

EGAP Researcher: Daniel Butler

Other Authors: David E. Brookman

Partners: Panache 2620 (via Creative Commons)

Geographical Region: North America

Research Question:

Do constituents change their opinions to adopt those of their legislator?

Preparer: Nicholas Kuipers

English

Background:

Conventional wisdom suggests that politicians are constrained by the opinions of their constituents. If they adopt policy positions at odds with the opinions of their constituents, they will be voted out of office. However, increasingly, analysts argue that politicians also shape public opinion. If this is the case, it is unclear how this shaping occurs. One possibility is that voters change their opinion because they found the politician’s reasoning persuasive. Another—called position adoption—sees voters align first with a politician, and then defer to that politician’s judgment on specific policy issues. This research is designed to identify how politicians lead public opinion when they do.


Research Design:

To test the ways in which politicians influence public opinion, the authors conduct two studies. The structures of the two studies are nearly identical. The authors partner with state legislators in a Midwestern state and identify contentious policy positions that they hold (support for tax increases or support for undocumented immigrants, for example). Next, they conduct interviews with a randomly selected sample of constituents to identify their opinions on these issues. Then, voters are randomly either sent (1) a control letter or (2) a treatment letter where the legislator stakes out a position with which the voter disagrees, and which is randomly selected from the array of previously identified contentious policy issues. Finally, the researchers follow up with another survey to identify the effect of the treatment letter on voters’ opinions.

In the first study (Summer 2013), the authors partnered with a single legislator on four issue areas, where the sample size was 395 voters. The letter contained a simple statement of his position and why he believes the assigned issue was important. In the second study (Spring 2014), the authors partner with seven additional legislators from the same Midwestern state. Whereas the first study looked at one rural district, the second examined a mix of rural, urban, and suburban districts (including one college town). They identify 17 issue areas and have a sample of 1,057 voters. Here, the authors have three (rather than two possible letters): (1) a “control” letter in which the legislator introduced him or herself, (2) a “basic justification” policy letter that offered a brief argument in favor of the position, or (3) an “extensive justification” policy letter that added more comprehensive arguments in favor of the position.
 

Results:

Across both studies, the authors find that a letter from a politician supporting a policy that voters previously opposed makes voters significantly more likely to support that position. In the second study (which aims to explore the reason for an opinion change towards the politicians’ stated position), the authors find that a letter where a politician merely states his or her policy position makes voters significantly more likely to support a position they previously opposed. They find no evidence that an extensive justification makes voters significantly more likely to support a position they previously opposed. Of course, this pattern might not hold for all issues and in all contexts, so future work should explore under what conditions these results hold. 
 

Policy Implications:

First and foremost, the authors find little evidence that voters punish politicians who adopt positions different from their own. On the contrary, voters will sometimes openly adopt the position of their legislators. One implication of this finding is that politicians should feel emboldened to adopt positions that their constituents do not hold, but that they believe to be principled or profitable. Key issues—such as the refinancing of many states’ pension funds—remain untouched because they are hugely unpopular with constituents despite the recognition on the part of legislators that reform is urgent. This research offers support to the idea that constituents might defer to the judgment of policymakers.