Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Misunderestimating Your Constituents

As we sadly saw in the recent gun control debate, there's a systemic skew to the right in American politics. But it's not quite what you think. It's not the massive power of single issue lobbys. It's the perception politicians have of their own constituents.

Republicans will invariably veer to their extremists, while Democrats are too often too timid with their base or too fearful that moderates will punish their "liberalism.". Turns out both are wrong.

In “What Politicians Believe About Their Constituents," David E. Broockman at the University of California, Berkeley, and Christopher Skovron at the University of Michigan find: "a substantial and pervasive conservative bias in politicians’ estimates of district opinion. Politicians are much more likely to erroneously believe that their constituents are more conservative than they actually are than to erroneously believe that their constituents are more liberal than they actually are."

The study covered Obamacare and same-sex marriage and found that conservative politicians overestimate the conservative leanings of constituents by about 20 percentage points; liberals overestimate by about 10 points; and centrist Democrats overestimate by about 15 points.

It's an old lefty cliché: "if the people lead, eventually the leaders will follow." But things only get enshrined as  clichés if they have some truth in them. It seems leadership opinion is ironically a trailing, not a leading, indicator. The flurry of Democratic politicians suddenly "evolving" on marriage equality this spring was a panicked attempt to catch up to public opinion.

We're starting to see hints of it in the drug war, too, as the first states are embracing full marijuana legalization. But, very tellingly, it was voter initiatives, not legislative action, that made that happen in Colorado and Washington.

This isn't a Grand Unifying Theory. It may not even be the largest factor on the right.  There's still the important dynamic of safely gerrymandered, mostly red, districts, where the only threat to re-election is a primary challenge from the right.

But in the context of a general election, it's encouragement for Republicans to cut the ties to extremes. And it definitely should encourage Democrats to be more boldly progressive.

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