by Miguel M. Pereira, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at Washington University in St. Louis.
A central question in the process of representation is how elected officials gauge and respond to voter signals. As office-seekers, politicians have strong incentives to be informed. However, there is a growing recognition that gauging constituent preferences is more demanding than originally suggested (Butler and Nickerson 2011). Representatives often have a distorted image of their constituents (Broockman and Skovron 2018; Converse and Pierce 1986) Hence, a key ingredient for responsiveness is often missing. In this study, I explore two questions related to this puzzle: (1) why do politicians misperceive voter preferences; and (2) how can misperceptions be mitigated.
I argue that elite misperceptions result from a combination of differential exposure and personal biases of legislators. First, representatives do not interact with all segments of the electorate in the same way. More affluent and organized groups are more likely to make their voices heard in the policymaking process (Giger et al. 2012; Schlozman et al. 2012). If legislators rely on availability heuristics to gauge public preferences, imbalances in political engagement may lead elected officials to overestimate the support for policies endorsed by these subconstituencies. Second, personal biases of elected officials may also hinder the development of accurate beliefs. Representatives may be inclined to engage in social projection: projecting their own policy preferences on voters (Krueger and Clement 1994). This cognitive bias may lead representatives to overestimate support for policies they endorse.
I tested these expectations in two complementary surveys with elected officials. The first study is based on a panel of Swedish MPs covering two decades. This dataset was combined with mass surveys fielded concurrently to create measures of perceptual accuracy. The analyses reveal that elite beliefs disproportionately reflect the preferences of high-status voters: white collar voters, or college-educated, or in the top 15th income percentile, or urban voters. Figure 1 summarizes the main findings. The probability of an MP correctly perceiving the majority opinion on a given policy issue decreases, on average, 12 percentage points when white-collar voters disagree with the median voter. The analyses also show evidence of social projection: elected officials systematically overestimate public support for policies they personally endorse.
Figure 1. The role of high-status voters and MP personal preferences on perceptual accuracy.
Note: Points are estimates from linear probability models with perceptual accuracy as the outcome variable (1 if respondent correctly identifies the majority position on a given issue; 0 otherwise). The key predictors are listed on the y-axis. Each color represents a distinct model based on the operationalization of high-status voters. All models account for preference imbalance and include fixed effects by party, year, and issue.
The second study was designed to provide causal evidence for the key predictions derived from the theory and to assess the degree to which misperceptions can be mitigated. In an original survey that leveraged real political events, 2,918 Swiss local representatives were asked to estimate support for two upcoming referendums in their municipalities. Together with the disaggregated results from the popular votes, these data allowed me to produce precise measures of perceptual accuracy at the local level. Officials were randomly assigned to informational cues designed to (1) overcome inequalities in exposure and (2) social projection. The results reveal that representatives were significantly more accurate in their predictions when encouraged to avoid availability heuristics and to consider the electorate more broadly. Figure 2 presents the main results of the experiment.
Figure 2. The effects of exposure and self-awareness to social projection on perceptual accuracy
Note: Points are estimates of the difference in the probability of Swiss local officials correctly perceiving the expressed preferences of the majority of voters in their constituency by treatment condition (control = baseline).
The findings have several implications for the study of political representation and responsiveness. First, the patterns uncovered provide a rather pessimistic view of the ability for constituents to control public policy. The study joins recent scholarship in the United States uncovering relevant distortions in elite perceptions of public opinion (Broockman and Skovron 2018; Hertel-Fernandez et al. 2019). However, Sweden and Switzerland are two of the most socially inclusive societies in the world. The fact that in both countries inequalities in political voice seem to have meaningful effects on perceptions of public opinion is concerning. The results shed light on the path yet to cover until societies are able to sustain fully inclusive political institutions.
The results also suggest that inequalities in responsiveness may have deeper roots than prior work suggests. Even when legislators are not trying to favor any particular subconstituency, differential exposure can reproduce inequalities in representation by systematically distorting elite beliefs about the preferences of voters.
At the same time, the Swiss study suggests that misperceptions are not inevitable. The informational nudges designed to help legislators avoid availability heuristics induced more accurate beliefs about the electorate. These results suggest that improving perceptions of public opinion is possible even with low impact interventions.
Broockman, David E. and Christopher Skovron. 2018. “Bias in perceptions of public opinion among political elites.’’ American Political Science Review 112(3): 542-563.
Butler, Daniel M. and David W. Nickerson. 2011. “Can learning constituency opinion affect how legislators vote? Results from a field experiment.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 6: 55-83.
Converse, Philip E., and Roy Pierce. 1986. Political Representation in France. Harvard University Press.
Giger, Nathalie, Jan Rosset, and Julian Bernauer. 2012. “The poor political representation of the poor in a comparative perspective.” Representation 48(1): 47-61.
Hertel-Fernandez, Alexander, Matto Mildenberger, and Leah C. Stokes. 2019. “Legislative staff and representation in Congress.” American Political Science Review 113(1): 1-18.
Krueger, Joachim, and Russell W. Clement. 1994. “The truly false consensus effect: an ineradicable and egocentric bias in social perception.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 67(4): 596-610.
Schlozman, Kay Lehman, Sidney Verba, and Henry E. Brady. 2012. The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Miguel Pereira is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at Washington University in St. Louis. His research focus on political representation and the behavior of political elites in established democracies. For more information about Miguel Pereira, please visit miguelmpereira.com or follow him on Twitter @miguelmaria