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The Structure of Political Choices: Distinguishing Between Constraint and Multidimensionality

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 April 2021

William Marble
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Political Science, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA. E-mail:
Matthew Tyler*
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Political Science, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA. E-mail:
Corresponding author Matthew Tyler


In the literatures on public opinion and legislative behavior, there are debates over (1) how constrained preferences are and (2) whether they are captured by a single left–right spectrum or require multiple dimensions. But insufficient formalization has led scholars to equate a lack of constraint with multidimensional preferences. In this paper, we refine the concepts of constraint and dimensionality in a formal framework and describe how they translate into separate observable implications for political preferences. We use this discussion to motivate a cross-validation estimator that measures constraint and dimensionality in the context of canonical ideal point models. Using data from the public and politicians, we find that American political preferences are one-dimensional, but there is more constraint among politicians than among the mass public. Furthermore, we show that differences between politicians and the public are not explained by differences in agendas or the incentives faced by the actors.

© The Author(s) 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Society for Political Methodology

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