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Bias in Perceptions of Public Opinion among Political Elites

  • DAVID E. BROOCKMAN (a1) and CHRISTOPHER SKOVRON (a2)
Abstract

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.

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Corresponding author
David E. Broockman is an Assistant Professor, Stanford Graduate School of Business, 655 Knight Way Stanford, CA 94305-7298 (dbroockman@stanford.edu), https://people.stanford.edu/dbroock/.
Christopher Skovron is a Postdoctoral Scholar, Institute for Policy Research and Institute on Complex Systems, Northwestern University, 2040 Sheridan Road, Evanston, IL 60208 (cskovron@northwestern.edu), http://sites.northwestern.edu/cskovron/.
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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: https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/DQZXQB.

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