Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Misrepresentatives of the People

I was doing my daily reading-over-coffee ritual when this article in The Daily Beast caught my eye:

I've gotten fairly cynical about the motivations of politicians, even the few who I admire, so I had a feeling this was going to be one of those pieces that would push me further down that path.


The author, Michael Tomasky, takes a look at a recent study examining how well legislators understand the degree to which the people they represent support certain policies.

Spoiler Alert - they don't understand where their constituents stand well at all, and Conservative legislators do it the worst.

Tomasky recaps this nicely (emphasis mine):

"Last year, they asked more than 2,000 state legislative candidates from around the country what they thought the political leanings of their constituents were. Specifically, they asked the candidates to estimate what percentage of the voters in the districts where they were seeking office supported: same-sex marriage; a government-run universal health-care program; the abolition of all federal welfare programs. Then they matched those to existing polling.
Answer? From the authors:
When we compare what legislators believe their constituents want to their constituents’ actual views, we discover that politicians hold remarkably inaccurate perceptions. Pick an American state legislator at random, and chances are that he or she will have massive misperceptions about district views on big-ticket issues, typically missing the mark by 15 percentage points.
What is more, the mistakes legislators make tend to fall in one direction, giving U.S. politics a rightward tilt compared to what most voters say they want."
Not surprising, in a way. But startling. The typical conservative candidate in their survey overestimated the district's conservatism by 20 points. The typical liberal candidate overestimated the conservatism by around 5 percentage points."
Thanks to gerrymandering, there are many districts across the country where the people sent to elected office skew more heavily to the left or the right than a random sample of a state or county. The point of this survey, though, is that even if you're a conservative legislator from a conservative-leaning district, you are likely overestimating how many of the people who elected you actually support certain conservative positions.
This is important, because much of the posturing over the current Federal budget showdown comes from people like Ted Cruz, who claim to be doing the work that the people who elected him are demanding.  Some of them are, I'm sure, but this research shows that the perception they claim drives their actions misses reality by a wide mark.
I'm going to follow up to see if the detailed survey data is available for easy access, and if so I'll post links to it here.  It would be pretty enlightening to be able to look up your legislators and see how well they understand the people they represent (or misrepresent).

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