Why U.S. Politicians Think Americans Are So Conservative When They're Not

Does it matter whether or not America is actually a "center-right" country, as conservatives argue, if its elected leaders think it is? Or is the only factor that matters the size of a voter's bank account? Let's look at the charts.

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Does it matter whether or not America is actually a "center-right" country, as conservatives argue, if its elected leaders think it is? Or is the only factor that matters the size of a voter's bank account?

During last November's elections, a group of researchers asked candidates for office to complete a survey measuring the candidates' assessment of the political leaning of their constituents. The candidates did poorly. The Washington Post's Wonkblog explains the findings:

[Study authors] Broockman and Skrovron find that all legislators consistently believe their constituents are more conservative than they actually are. This includes Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. But conservative legislators generally overestimate the conservatism of their constituents by 20 points. “This difference is so large that nearly half of conservative politicians appear to believe that they represent a district that is more conservative on these issues than is the most conservative district in the entire country,” Broockman and Skovron write.

That miscalculation is visible in the charts Wonkblog includes with the post.

The X axis is the district’s actual views, and the Y axis their legislators’ estimates of their views. The thin black line is perfect accuracy, the response you’d get from a legislator totally in tune with his constituents. Lines above it would signify the politicians think the district more liberal than it actually is; if they’re below it, that means the legislators are overestimating their constituents’ conservatism.

Image from Broockman/Skrovron via Wonkblog

The study also suggests that this overestimation of conservativeness occurs regardless of issue and regardless of how often the politician talks to his constituents.

For liberals, the news gets worse. Last week, Reuter's Chrystia Freeland, author of 2012's Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, dissected another recent study (from the progressive organization Demos) suggesting that lower- and middle-income voters' political views are underrepresented in politics.

The Demos study draws in part on the quantitative research of Martin Gilens, a professor of politics at Princeton University and author of “Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America.” Gilens, who focused on the divide between the top 10 percent and everyone else, found a high degree of what he calls political inequality.

“I looked at lots of survey data that indicated what people at different income levels wanted the government to do, and then I looked at what the government did,” Gilens explained.

“For people at the top 10 percent, you could predict what the government would do based on their preferences,” he said. “But when the preferences of people at lower income levels diverged from the affluent, that had no impact at all on the policies that were adopted. That was true not only for the poor but for the middle class as well.”

Gilens is a social scientist who is careful to stick to his data. But he told me he was “definitely surprised by the extent of the inequality.”

There may be one partial explanation for this: Older voters, though they represent a smaller percentage of the population, are more likely to be registered to vote and then actually vote — and are more likely to be wealthier and more conservative. Here's our map of the percentage breakdown from the (fairly conservative) 2010 electorate of population percentage, along with each group's registration and voting numbers.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau

In other words, elected officials may be more accurately guessing voters' views, if not constituents. And if this is the cause of each study, there's some good news for those seeking more liberal policies: Demographics change.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.