Winning Proposal to the Converse-Miller Scholar's Fund: 2014 Competition

Project Title: Untangling Constituency Influence in State Legislatures

Faculty Sponsors: Rocio Titiunik

Graduate Student: Christopher Skovron

Project Description

What influence does public opinion have on legislative outcomes? This question is a central one to theories of representative democracy and empirical investigations of the causes and correlates of legislative outcomes (e.g., Bafumi and Herron 2010; Canes-Wrone, Brady and Cogan 2002; Lax and Phillips 2009, 2012; Miller and Stokes 1963). While pressures from interest groups, party elites, and the like obviously play an essential role in determining legislative behavior, the classic Miller-Stokes theory of constituency influence remains persuasive. We expect that constituents’ preferences will operate through electoral selection and through the “perceptual control” provided by the legislator’s perception of their preferences. We also expect that this kind of constituency control is unlikely to operate perfectly. Empirically, a strong but imperfect relationship between constituents’ preferences and representatives’ actions is often found, although the precise nature of the relationship is a topic of considerable debate.

Testing the Miller-Stokes theory requires data that has, until recently, been difficult to acquire. Valid estimates of constituency opinion in legislative districts have been hard to come by until recently. Advances in statistical modeling of opinion and new national databases make this task easier. Even harder still is collecting data on representatives’ perceptions of district opinion. However, Skovron’s work with colleagues on the National Candidate Study (Broockman, Carnes, Crowder-Meyer and Skovron 2013) provides insight into state legislators’ perceptions of district preferences. In an investigation of the “perceptual” side of the Miller-Stokes theory, Broockman and Skovron (2013) find that candidates for state legislative offices have very inaccurate perceptions of public opinion in their districts and that the candidates tend to overestimate how conservative their constituents are.