Skip to main content

Bias in Perceptions of Public Opinion among Political Elites


The conservative asymmetry of elite polarization represents a significant puzzle. We argue that politicians can maintain systematic misperceptions of constituency opinion that may contribute to breakdowns in dyadic representation. We demonstrate this argument with original surveys of 3,765 politicians’ perceptions of constituency opinion on nine issues. In 2012 and 2014, state legislative politicians from both parties dramatically overestimated their constituents’ support for conservative policies on these issues, a pattern consistent across methods, districts, and states. Republicans drive much of this overestimation. Exploiting responses from politicians in the same district, we confirm these partisan differences within individual districts. Further evidence suggests that this overestimation may arise due to biases in who contacts politicians, as in recent years Republican citizens have been especially likely to contact legislators, especially fellow Republicans. Our findings suggest that a novel force can operate in elections and in legislatures: Politicians can systematically misperceive what their constituents want.

Corresponding author
David E. Broockman is an Assistant Professor, Stanford Graduate School of Business, 655 Knight Way Stanford, CA 94305-7298 (,
Christopher Skovron is a Postdoctoral Scholar, Institute for Policy Research and Institute on Complex Systems, Northwestern University, 2040 Sheridan Road, Evanston, IL 60208 (,
Hide All

The authors’ names appear in alphabetical order. We thank seminar participants at Michigan, Northwestern, Stanford, and the American Political Science Association’s Annual Meeting as well as Jon Bendor, Jamie Druckman, Don Green, Vince Hutchings, Geoff Kabaservice, Skip Lupia, Neil Malhotra, Fabian Neuner, Ken Shotts, Stuart Soroka, Laura Stoker, Nick Valentino, and Rob Van Houweling for helpful feedback. Remaining errors are our own. Skovron acknowledges the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program for support. The CCES data used in this article were supported by the National Science Foundation, Awards #1430505 and #1225750. Replication materials are available at the American Political Science Review Dataverse:

Hide All
Achen, Christopher H. 1977. “Measuring Representation: Perils of the Correlation Coefficient.” American Journal of Political Science 21: 805–15.
Achen, Christopher H. 1978. “Measuring Representation.” American Journal of Political Science 22: 475510.
Achen, Christopher H., and Bartels, Larry M.. 2016. Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Ahler, Douglas J., and Broockman, David E.. Forthcoming. “The Delegate Paradox: Why Polarized Politicians Can Represent Citizens Best.” Journal of Politics.
Ansolabehere, Stephen, and Schaffner, Brian. 2015. “CCES Common Content, 2014.” Computer file.
Arnold, R. Douglas. 1990. The Logic of Congressional Action. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Bartels, Larry M. 2008. Unequal Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Bawn, Kathleen, Cohen, Martin, Karol, David, Masket, Seth, Noel, Hans, and Zaller, John. 2012. “A Theory of Political Parties: Groups, Policy Demands and Nominations in American Politics.” Perspectives on Politics 10 (3): 571–97.
Bendor, Jonathan, and Bullock, John G.. 2008. “Lethal Incompetence: Voters, Officials, and Systems.” Critical Review 20 (1–2): 123.
Bergan, Daniel E. 2009. “Does Grassroots Lobbying Work? A Field Experiment Measuring the Effects of an Email Lobbying Campaign on Legislative Behavior.” American Politics Research 37: 327–52.
Bergan, Daniel E., and Cole, Richard T.. 2015. “Call Your Legislator: A Field Experimental Study of the Impact of Citizen Contacts on Legislative Voting.” Political Behavior 37 (1): 2742.
Berinsky, Adam J., and Lenz, Gabriel S.. 2014. “Red Scare? Revisiting Joe McCarthy’s Influence on 1950s Elections.” Public Opinion Quarterly 78 (2): 369–91.
Blee, Kathleen M., and Creasap, Kimberly A.. 2010. “Conservative and Right-Wing Movements.” Annual Review of Sociology 36: 269–86.
Broockman, David E., and Ryan, Timothy J.. 2016. “Preaching to the Choir: Americans Prefer Communicating to Copartisan Elected Officials.” American Journal of Political Science 60 (4): 1093– 107.
Butler, Daniel M., and Dynes, Adam. 2016. “How Politicians Discount the Opinions of Constituents with Whom They Disagree.” American Journal of Political Science 60 (4): 975–89.
Butler, Daniel M., and Nickerson, David W.. 2011. “Can Learning Constituency Opinion Affect How Legislators Vote? Results from a Field Experiment.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 6: 5583.
Caughey, Devin, and Warshaw, Christopher. 2015. “Dynamic Estimation of Latent Opinion Using a Hierarchical Group-Level IRT Model.” Political Analysis 23 (2): 197211.
Caughey, Devin, and Warshaw, Christopher. Forthcoming. “Policy Preferences and Policy Change: Dynamic Responsiveness in the American States, 1936–2014.” American Political Science Review.
Downs, Anthony. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper & Row.
Druckman, James N., and Jacobs, Lawrence R.. 2006. “Lumpers and Splitters: The Public Opinion Information that Politicians Collect and Use.” Public Opinion Quarterly 70 (4): 453.
Eggers, Andrew C., and Lauderdale, Benjamin E.. 2016. “Simulating Counterfactual Representation.” Political Analysis 24 (2): 281– 90.
Ellis, Christopher, and Stimson, James A.. 2012. Ideology in America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Enos, Ryan D., and Hersh, Eitan D.. 2017. “Campaign Perceptions of Electoral Closeness: Uncertainty, Fear and Over-Confidence.” British Journal of Political Science 47 (3): 501–19.
Erikson, Robert S. 2013. Policy Responsiveness to Public Opinion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Erikson, Robert S., MacKuen, Michael B., and Stimson, James A.. 2002. The Macro Polity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fang, Lee. 2013. The Machine: A Field Guide to the Resurgent Right. NewYork: The New Press.
Fenno, Richard F. 1977. “U.S. House Members in Their Constituencies: An Exploration.” American Political Science Review 71 (3): 883917.
Fiorina, Morris P., and Levendusky, Matthew S.. 2006. Disconnected: The Political Class versus the People. Red and Blue Nation? Characteristics, Causes, and Consequences of America’s Polarized Politics. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 4971.
Gilens, Martin. 2012. Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Gilens, Martin, and Page, Benjamin I.. 2014. “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” Perspectives on Politics 12 (3): 564–81.
Goss, Kristin A. 2008. Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Grossmann, Matt, and Hopkins, David A.. 2015. “Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats: The Asymmetry of American Party Politics.” Perspectives on Politics 13 (1): 119–39.
Grossmann, Matt, and Hopkins, David A.. 2016. Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hacker, Jacob S., and Pierson, Paul. 2005. Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Hacker, Jacob S., and Pierson, Paul. 2015. Confronting Asymmetric Polarization. In Solutions to Political Polarization in America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hall, Andrew B. 2015. “What Happens When Extremists Win Primaries?American Political Science Review 109 (1): 1842.
Hall, Andrew B., and Snyder, James M.. 2015. “Candidate Ideology and Electoral Success” working paper).
Hanretty, Chris, Lauderdale, Benjamin E., and Vivyan, Nick. 2016. “Comparing Strategies for Estimating Constituency Opinion from National Survey Samples.” Political Science Research and Methods 121.
Hedlund, Ronald D., and Friesema, H. Paul. 1972. “Representatives’ Perceptions of Constituency Opinion.” Journal of Politics 34 (3): 730–52.
Henderson, John, and Brooks, John. 2016. “Mediating the Electoral Connection: The Information Effects of Voter Signals on Legislative Behavior.” The Journal of Politics 78 (3): 653–69.
Hill, Seth J. 2017. “Representation of Primary Electorates in Congressional Roll Call Votes” (working paper).
Jacobs, Lawrence R., and Shapiro, Robert Y.. 1995. “The Rise of Presidential Polling the Nixon White House in Historical Perspective.” Public Opinion Quarterly 59 (2): 163–95.
Jacobson, Gary C. 2013. “How the Economy and Partisanship Shaped the 2012 Presidential and Congressional Elections.” Political Science Quarterly 128 (1): 138.
Kastellec, Jonathan, Lax, Jeffrey R., Malecki, Michael, and Phillips, Justin H.. 2015. “Polarizing the Electoral Connection: Partisan Representation in Supreme Court Confirmation Politics.” Journal of Politics 77 (3): 787804.
Kingdon, John W. 1967. “Politicians’ Beliefs about Voters.” American Political Science Review 61 (1): 137–45.
Krimmel, Katherine, Lax, Jeffrey R., and Phillips, Justin H.. 2016. “Gay Rights in Congress: Public Opinion and (Mis) Representation.” Public Opinion Quarterly 80 (4): 888913.
Kuklinski, James H., and Elling, Richard C.. 1977. “Representation Role, Constituency Opinion, and Legislative Roll-Call Behavior.” American Journal of Political Science 21 (1): 135–47.
Lax, Jeffrey R., and Phillips, Justin H.. 2009a. “Gay Rights in the States: Public Opinion and Policy Responsiveness.” American Political Science Review 103 (3): 367–85.
Lax, Jeffrey R., and Phillips, Justin H.. 2009b. “How Should We Estimate Public Opinion in the States?American Journal of Political Science 53 (1): 107–21.
Lax, Jeffrey R., and Phillips, Justin H.. 2012. “The Democratic Deficit in the States.” American Journal of Political Science 56 (1): 148–66.
Lax, Jeffrey R., Phillips, Justin H., and Zelizer, Adam. 2017. “The Party or the Purse? Unequal Representation in the U.S. Senate.” Accessed March 4 2018.
Layman, Geoffrey C., Carsey, Thomas M., Green, John C., Herrera, Richard, and Cooperman, Rosalyn. 2010. “Activists and Conflict Extension in American Party Politics.” American Political Science Review 104 (02): 324–46.
Lelkes, Yphtach, and Sniderman, Paul M.. 2016. “The Ideological Asymmetry of the American Party System.” British Journal of Political Science 46 (4): 825–44.
MacGuffie, Robert. 2009. “Rocking the Town Halls—Best Practices.”
Mann, Thomas E., and Ornstein, Norman J.. 2013. It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism. New York: Basic Books.
McCarty, Nolan. 2015. “What We Know and Do Not Know about Our Polarized Politics.” In Political Polarization in American Politics, eds. Hopkins, Daniel J. and Sides, John. London: Bloomsbury.
McCarty, Nolan, Poole, Keith T., and Rosenthal, Howard. 2006. Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Miler, Kristina C. 2010. Constituency Representation in Congress: The View from Capitol Hill. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Miller, Warren E., and Stokes, Donald W.. 1963. “Constituency Influence in Congress.” American Political Science Review 57: 4556.
Noel, Hans. 2012. “The Coalition Merchants: The Ideological Roots of the Civil Rights Realignment.” Journal of Politics 74 (1): 156–73.
Park, David K., Gelman, Andrew, and Bafumi, Joseph. 2004. “Bayesian Multilevel Estimation with Poststratification: State-Level Estimates from National Polls.” Political Analysis 12 (4): 375–85.
Parker, Kim, Horowitz, Juliana, Igielnik, Ruth, Oliphant, Baxter, and Brown, Anna. 2017. “America's Complex Relationship with Guns.” Pew Research Center Report.
Schlozman, Kay Lehman, Verba, Sidney, and Brady, Henry. 2012. The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Shor, Boris. 2015. “Polarization in American State Legislatures.” In American Gridlock: The Sources, Character, and Impact of Political Polarization, eds. Thurber, James A. and Yoshinaka, Antoine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Skocpol, Theda, and Hertel-Fernandez, Alexander. 2016. “The Koch Network and Republican Party Extremism.” Perspectives on Politics 14 (3): 681–99.
Skocpol, Theda, and Williamson, Vanessa. 2011. The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Squire, Peverill. 2007. “Measuring State Legislative Professionalism: The Squire Index Revisited.” State Politics and Policy Quarterly 7 (2): 211–27.
Tausanovitch, Chris, and Warshaw, Christopher. 2014. “Representation in Municipal Government.” American Political Science Review 108 (3): 605–41.
Theriault, Sean M. 2006. “Party Polarization in the US Congress.” Party Politics 12 (4): 483503.
Theriault, Sean M. 2013. The Gingrich Senators. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Thomsen, Danielle M. 2014. “Ideological Moderates Won’t Run: How Party Fit Matters for Partisan Polarization in Congress.” Journal of Politics 76 (3): 786–97.
Tversky, Amos, and Kahneman, Daniel. 1973. “Availability: A Heuristic for Judging Frequency and Probability.” Cognitive Psychology 5 (2): 207–32.
Uslaner, Eric M., and Weber, Ronald E.. 1979. “U.S. State Legislators’ Opinions and Perceptions of Constituency Attitudes.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 4 (4): 563–85.
Warshaw, Christopher, and Rodden, Jonathan. 2012. “How Should We Measure District-Level Public Opinion on Individual Issues?Journal of Politics 74 (1): 203–19.
Weissberg, Robert. 1978. “Collective vs. Dyadic Representation in Congress.” American Political Science Review 72 (2): 535– 47.
Wlezien, Christopher. 1995. “The Public as Thermostat: Dynamics of Preferences for Spending.” American Journal of Political Science 39 (4): 9811000.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
  • URL: /core/journals/american-political-science-review
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *
Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Broockman and Skovron supplementary material
Online Appendix

 PDF (2.0 MB)
2.0 MB
Supplementary materials

Broockman and Skovron Dataset



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed