Is it accurate to say, “Politicians Don’t Actually Care What Voters Want”?

Jonathan Weinstein writes:

This was a New York Times op-ed today, referring to this working paper. I found the pathologies of the paper to be worth an extended commentary, and wrote a possible blog entry, attached. I used to participate years ago in a shared blog at Northwestern, “Leisure of the Theory Class,” but nowadays I don’t have much of a platform for this.

The op-ed in question is by Joshua Kalla and Ethan Porter with title, “Politicians Don’t Actually Care What Voters Want,” and subtitle, “Does that statement sound too cynical? Unfortunately, the evidence supports it.” The working paper, by the same authors, is called, “Correcting Bias in Perceptions of Public Opinion Among American Elected Officials: Results from Two Field Experiments,” and begins:

While concerns about the public’s receptivity to factual information are widespread, muchless attention has been paid to the factual receptivity, or lack thereof, of elected officials. Re-cent survey research has made clear that U.S. legislators and legislative staff systematicallymisperceive their constituents’ opinions on salient public policies. We report results from twofield experiments designed to correct misperceptions of sitting U.S. legislators. The legislators (n=2,346) were invited to access a dashboard of constituent opinion generated using the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study. Here we show that despite extensive outreach ef-forts, only 11% accessed the information. More troubling for democratic norms, legislators who accessed constituent opinion data were no more accurate at perceiving their constituents’ opinions. Our findings underscore the challenges confronting efforts to improve the accuracy of elected officials’ perceptions and suggest that elected officials may be more resistant to factual information than the mass public.

Weinstein’s criticism of the Kalla and Porter article is here, and this is Weinstein’s main point:

The study provided politicians with data on voters’ beliefs, and attempted to measure changes in the politicians’ perception of these beliefs. No significant effects were found. But there are always many possible explanations for null results! The sensational, headlined explanation defies common sense and contradicts other data in the paper itself, while other explanations are both intuitive and supported by the data.


The authors claim that the study is “well-powered,” suggesting an awareness of the issue, but they do not deal with it adequately, say by displaying confidence intervals and arguing that they prove the effect is small. It is certainly not obvious that a study in which only 55 of 2,346 potential subjects complied with all phases is actually well-powered.

My reaction to all this was, as the social scientists say, overdetermined. That is, the story had a bunch of features that might incline me to take one view or another:

1. Weinstein contacted me directly and said nice things about this blog. +1 for the criticism. A polite email doesn’t matter, but it should.

2. Weinstein’s an economist, Kalla and Porter are political scientists and the topic of the research is politics. My starting point is to assume that economists know more about economics, political scientists know more about politics, sociologists know more about sociology. So +1 for the original paper.

3. On the substance, there’s some work by Lax and Phillips on congruence of political attitudes and legislative positions. The summary of this work is that public opinion does matter to legislators. So +1 for the criticism. On the other hand, public opinion is really hard to estimate. Surveys are noisy, there’s lots of conflicting information out there, and I could well believe that, in many cases, even if legislators would like to follow public opinion, it wouldn’t make sense for them to do much with it. So +1 for the original paper.

4. The sample size of 55, that seems like an issue, and I think we do have to worry about claims of null effects based on not seeing any clear pattern in noisy data. So +1 for the criticism.

5. The paper uses Mister P to estimate state-level opinion. +1 for the paper.

And . . . all the pluses balance out! I don’t know what I’m supposed to think!

Also, I don’t know any of these people—I don’t think that at the time of this writing [July 2019] I’ve ever even met them. None of this is personal. Actually, I think my reactions would be pretty similar even if I did know some of these people. I’m willing to criticize friends’ work and to praise the work of people I dislike or don’t know personally.

Anyway, my point in this digression is not that it’s appropriate to evaluate research claims based on these sorts of indirect arguments, which are really just one step above attitudes of the form, “Don’t trust that guy’s research, he’s from Cornell!”—but rather to recognize that it’s inevitable that we will have some reactions based on meta-data, and I think it’s better to recognize these quasi-Bayesian inferences that we are doing, even if for no better reason than to avoid over-weighting them when drawing our conclusions.

OK, back to the main story . . . With Weinstein’s permission, I sent his criticisms to Kalla and Porter, who replied to Weinstein’s 3-page criticism with a 3-page defense, which makes the following key point:

His criticisms of the paper, however, do not reflect exposure to relevant literature—literature that makes our results less surprising and our methods more defensible . . .

Since Miller and Stokes (1963), scholars have empirically studied whether elected officials know what policies their constituents want. Recent work in political science has found that there are systematic biases in elite perceptions that suggest many state legislators and congressional staffers do not have an accurate assessment of their constituents’ views on several key issues. . . . Hertel-Fernandez, Mildenberger and Stokes (2019) administer surveys on Congressional staff and come to the same conclusion. . . . elected officials substantially misperceive what their constituents want. The polling that does take place in American politics either is frequently devoid of any issue content (horserace polling) or is devised to develop messages to distract and manipulate the mass public, as documented in Druckman and Jacobs (2015). Contrary to Professor Weinstein’s description, our results are far from “bizarre,” given the state of the literature.

Regarding the small sample size and acceptance of the null, Kalla and Porter write:

Even given our limited sample size, we do believe that our study is sufficiently well-powered to demonstrate that this null is normatively and politically meaningful . . . our study was powered for a minimal detectable effect of a 7 percentage point reduction in misperceptions, where the baseline degree of misperception was 18 percentage points in the control condition.

So there you have it. In summary:
Research article
Response to criticism

I appreciate the behavior of all the researchers here. Kalla and Porter put their work up on the web for all to read. Weinstein followed up with a thoughtful criticism. Harsh, but thoughtful and detailed, touching on substance as well as method. Kalla and Porter used the criticism as a way to clarify issues in their paper.

What do I now think about the underlying issues? I’m not sure. Some of my answer would have to depend on the details of Kalla and Porter’s design and data, and I haven’t gone through all that in detail.

(To those of you who say that I should not discuss a paper that I’ve not read in full detail, I can only reply that this is a ridiculous position to take. We need to make judgments based on partial information. All. The. Time. And one of the services we provide as this blog is to model such uncertain reactions, to take seriously the problem of what conclusions should be drawn based on the information available to us, processed in available time using available effort.)

But I can offer some more general remarks on the substantive question given in the title of this post. My best take on this, given all the evidence I’ve seen, is that it makes sense for politicians to know where their voters stand on the issues, but that information typically isn’t readily available. At this point, you might ask why politicians don’t do more local polling on issues, and I don’t know—maybe they do—but one issue might be that, when it comes to national issues, you can use national polling and approximately adjust using known characteristics of the district compared to the country, based on geography, demographics, etc. Also, what’s typically relevant is not raw opinion but some sort of average, weighted by likelihood to vote, campaign contributions, and so forth.

I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t see a coherent story here yet. This is not meant as a criticism of Kalla and Porter, who must have a much better sense of the literature than I do, but rather to indicate a difficulty in how we think about the links between public opinion and legislator behavior. I don’t think it’s quite that “Politicians Don’t Actually Care What Voters Want”; it’s more that politicians don’t always have a good sense of what voters want, politicians aren’t always sure what they would do with that information if they had it, and whatever voters think they want is itself inherently unstable and does not always exist independent of framing. As Jacobs and Shapiro wrote, “politicians don’t pander.” They think of public opinion as a tool to get what they want, not as some fixed entity that they have to work around.

These last comments are somewhat independent of whatever was in Kalla and Porter’s study, which doesn’t make that study irrelevant to our thinking; it just implies that further work is needed to connect these experimental results to our larger story.