Skip to main content Accessibility help

The Party or the Purse? Unequal Representation in the US Senate



Recent work on US policymaking argues that responsiveness to public opinion is distorted by money, in that the preferences of the rich matter much more than those of lower-income Americans. A second distortion—partisan biases in responsiveness—has been less well studied and is often ignored or downplayed in the literature on affluent influence. We are the first to evaluate, in tandem, these two potential distortions in representation. We do so using 49 Senate roll-call votes from 2001 to 2015. We find that affluent influence is overstated and itself contingent on partisanship—party trumps the purse when senators have to take sides. The poor get what they want more often from Democrats. The rich get what they want more often from Republicans, but only if Republican constituents side with the rich. Thus, partisanship induces, shapes, and constrains affluent influence.


Corresponding author

*Jeffrey R. Lax, Professor, Department of Political Science, Columbia University,
Justin H. Phillips, Professor, Department of Political Science, Columbia University,
Adam Zelizer, Assistant Professor, Harris School of Public Policy, The University of Chicago,


Hide All

This project was funded in part by grant from the Russell Sage Foundation (G-6789, “Who Listens to Whom? Assessing Inequalities in Representation”). We thank Andrew Guess and Michael Malecki for previous work with us on uncertainty in opinion estimation. We thank participants at Columbia University, Wake Forest University, and the American and Midwest Political Science Association Conferences for helpful feedback and discussion. We thank the anonymous reviewers for their careful reading, advice, and patience. Replication files are available at the American Political Science Review Dataverse:



Hide All
Achen, Christopher H. 1978. “Measuring Representation.” American Journal of Political Science 22 (3): 475–510.
Achen, Christopher, and Bartels, Larry. 2016. Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Ahler, Douglas J., and Broockman, David E.. 2018. “The Delegate Paradox: Why Polarized Politicians Can Represent Citizens Best.” The Journal of Politics 80(4): 1117–33.
Barker, David C., and Carman, Christopher Jan. 2012. Representing Red and Blue: How the Culture Wars Change the Way Citizens Speak and Politicians Listen. New York: Oxford University Press.
Bartels, Larry M. 2008. Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Bhatti, Yosef, and Erikson, Robert S.. 2011. “How Poorly Are the Poor Represented in the US Senate?” In Who Gets Represented? eds. Enns, Peter K. and Wlezien, Christopher. New York: Russel Sage Foundation, 285–310.
Branham, J. Alexander, Soroka, Stuart N., and Wlezien, Christopher. 2017. “When Do the Rich Win?Political Science Quarterly 132 (1): 43–62.
Broockman, David E. 2016. “Approaches to Studying Policy Representation.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 41 (1): 181–215.
Broockman, David E., and Skovron, Christopher. 2018. “Bias in Perceptions of Public Opinion Among American Political Elites.” American Political Science Review 112 (3): 1–22.
Brunner, Eric, Ross, Stephen L., and Washington, Ebonya. 2013. “Does Less Income Mean Less Representation?American Economic Journal: Economic Policy 5 (2): 53–76.
Buttice, Matthew K., and Highton, Benjamin. 2013. “How Does Multilevel Regression and Poststratification Perform with Conventional National Surveys?Political Analysis 21 (4): 449–67.
Clausen, Aage R. 1973. How Congressmen Decide: A Policy Focus. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Clinton, Joshua. 2006. “Representation in Congress: Constituents and Roll Calls in the 106th House.” The Journal of Politics 68 (2): 397–409.
Ellis, Christopher. 2012. “Understanding Economic Biases in Representation: Income, Resources, and Policy Representation in the 110th House.” Political Research Quarterly 65 (4): 938–51.
Ellis, Christopher. 2013. “Social Context and Economic Biases in Representation.” The Journal of Politics 75 (3): 773–86.
Ellis, Christopher. 2017. Putting Inequality in Context: Class, Public Opinion, and Representation in the United States. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Enns, Peter K. 2015a. “Relative Policy Support and Coincidental Representation.” Perspectives on Politics 13 (4): 1053–64.
Enns, Peter K. 2015b. “Reconsidering the Middle: A Reply to Martin Gilens.” Perspectives on Politics 13 (4): 1072.
Erikson, Robert S. 2015. “Income Inequality and Policy Responsiveness.” Annual Review of Political Science 18: 11–29.
Erikson, Robert S., Wright, Gerald C., and McIver, John P.. 1993. Statehouse Democracy: Public Opinion and Policy in the American States. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Fenno, Richard F. 1978. Home Style: Representatives in Their Districts. Boston: Little, Brown.
Gelman, Andrew, Shor, Boris, Bafumi, Joseph, and Park, David. 2007. “Rich State, Poor State, Red State, Blue State: What’s the Matter with Connecticut?Quarterly Journal of Political Science 2 (4): 345–67.
Gelman, Andrew, and Little, Thomas C.. 1997. “Poststratification into Many Categories Using Hierarchical Logistic Regression.” Survey Methodology 23 (2): 127–35.
Gelman, Andrew, and Stern, Hal. 2006. “The Difference Between ‘Significant’ and ‘Not Significant’ Is Not Itself Statistically Significant.” The American Statistician 60 (4): 328–31.
Gerber, Elisabeth R., and Lewis, Jeffrey B.. 2004. “Beyond the Median: Voter Preferences, District Heterogeneity, and Political Representation.” Journal of Political Economy 112 (6): 1364–83.
Gerber, Elisabeth R., and Morton, Rebecca B.. 1998. “Primary Election Systems and Representation.” Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization 14 (2): 304–24.
Giger, Nathalie, and Lefkofridi, Zoe. 2014. “The Role of Persoanl Issue Salience in Citizens’ Representation via Parties.” Swiss Political Science Review 20 (2): 287–304.
Gilens, Martin. 2005. “Inequality and Democratic Responsiveness.” Public Opinion Quarterly 69 (5): 778–96.
Gilens, Martin. 2012. Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Gilens, Martin. 2015. “The Insufficiency of ‘Democracy by Coincidence’: A Response to Peter K. Enns.” Perspectives on Politics 13 (4): 1065–71.
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.
Hayes, Thomas J. 2012. The Representational Sources of Political Inequality. Riverside: University of California.
Hayes, Thomas J. 2013. “Responsiveness in an Era of Inequality: The Case of the US Senate.” Political Research Quarterly 66 (3): 585–99.
Hussey, Wesley, and Zaller, John. 2011. “Who Do Parties Represent?” In Who Gets Represented? eds. Enns, Peter K. and Wlezien, Christopher. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation, 311–44.
Kastellec, Jonathan, Lax, Jeffrey R., Malecki, Michael, and Phillips, Justin H.. 2015. “Polarizing the Electoral Connection: Partisan Representation in Supreme Court Confirmation Politics.” The Journal of Politics 77 (3): 787–804.
Krimmel, Katherine, Lax, Jeffrey, and Phillips, Justin. 2016. “Gay Rights in Congress: Public Opinion and (Mis)Representation.” Public Opinion Quarterly 80 (4): 888–913.
Lax, Jeffrey R., and Phillips, Justin H.. 2009a. “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.. 2009b. “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.. 2012. “The Democratic Deficit in State Policymaking.” American Journal of Political Science 56 (1): 148–66.
Lax, Jeffrey R., and Phillips, Justin H.. 2013. “How Should We Estimate Sub-National Opinion Using MRP? Preliminary Findings and Recommendations.” Conference paper: Midwest Political Science Association.
Lefkofridi, Zoe, and Casado-Asensio, Juan. 2013. “European Vox Radicis: Representation and Policy Congruence on the Extremes.” Comparative European Politics 11 (1): 93–118.
Matsusaka, John G. 2001. “Problems with a Methodology Used to Evaluate the Voter Initiative.” The Journal of Politics 63 (4): 1250–6.
Matsusaka, John G. 2010. “Popular Control of Public Policy: A Quantitative Approach.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 5 (2): 133–67.
Park, David K., Gelman, Andrew, and Bafumi, Joseph. 2006. “State-Level Opinions from National Surveys: Poststratification Using Multilevel Logistic Regression.” In Public Opinion in State Politics, ed. Cohen, J.E.. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 209–28.
Poole, Keith T., and Rosenthal, Howard L.. 1997. Congress: A Political-Economic History of Roll Call Voting. New York: Oxford University Press.
Rhodes, Jesse H., and Schaffner, Brian F.. 2017. “Testing Models of Unequal Representation: Democratic Populists and Republican Oligarchs?Quarterly Journal of Political Science 12 (2): 185–204.
Rigby, Elizabeth, and Wright, Gerald C.. 2011. “Whose Statehouse Democracy? Policy Responsiveness to Poor versus Rich Constituents in Poor versus Rich States.” In Who Gets Represented? eds. Enns, Peter K. and Wlezien, Christopher. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation, 189–22.
Rigby, Elizabeth, and Maks-Solomon, Cory. 2017. “Are the Rich Always Better Represented Than the Poor? Income- and Party-Stratified Policy Representation in the US Senate.” Working Paper. Paper prepared for George Washington University Political Science Department American Politics Workshop on September 19, 2017.
Selb, Peter, and Munzert, Simon. 2011. “Estimating Constituency Preferences from Sparse Survey Data Using Auxiliary Geographic Information.” Political Analysis 19 (4): 455–70.
Sabl, Andrew. 2015. “The Two Cultures of Democratic Theory: Responsiveness, Democratic Quality, and the Empirical-Normative Divide.” Perspectives on Politics 13 (2): 345–65.
Shapiro, Catherine R., Brady, David W., Brody, Richard A., and Ferejohn, John A.. 1990. “Linking Constituency Opinion and Senate Voting Scores: A Hybrid Explanation.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 15 (4): 599–621.
Soroka, Stuart N., and Wlezien, Christophers 2008. “On the Limits to Inequality in Representation.” PS: Political Science & Politics 41 (2): 319–27.
Tausanovitch, Chris, 2016. “Income, Ideology, and Representation.” RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, 2 (7): 3350.
Treier, Shawn and Jackman, Simon. 2008. “Democracy as Latent Variable.” American Journal of Political Science 52 (1): 201–17.
Toshkov, Dimiter. 2015. “Exploring the Performance of Multilevel Modeling and Poststratification with Eurobarometer Data.” Political Analysis 23 (3): 455–60.
Ura, Joseph Daniel, and Ellis, Christopher R.. 2008. “Income, Preferences, and the Dynamics of Policy Responsiveness.” PS: Political Science & Politics 41 (4): 785–94.
Warshaw, Christopher. 2012. “Are Legislators More Responsive to Public Opinion on Salient Issues?” Working Paper Prepared for the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association. New Orleans, LA. August 30–September 2, 2012.
Warshaw, Christopher, and Rodden, Jonathan. 2012. “How Should We Measure District-Level Public Opinion on Individual Issues?The Journal of Politics 74 (1): 203–19.
Wlezien, Christopher, and Soroka, Stuart N.. 2011. “Inequality in Policy Responsiveness?” In Who Gets Represented? ed. Enns, Peter K. and Wlezien, Christopher. New York: Russel Sage Foundation, 285–310.
Wright, Gerald C. 1989. “Policy Voting in the US Senate: Who Is Represented?Legislative Studies Quarterly 14 (4): 465–86.
Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Lax et al. Dataset

Supplementary materials

Lax et al. supplementary material
Online Appendix

 PDF (276 KB)
276 KB

The Party or the Purse? Unequal Representation in the US Senate



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.