June 19, 2013

What Americans really want from their lawmakers

Americans often say they want their representatives in Congress to put the country’s needs over local concerns. But four novel experiments suggest that the public does just the opposite.  In a new study, respondents rated a member of Congress far more favorably if the lawmaker put the interests of his or her district or state over those of the country as a whole.

In one experiment, political scientist David Doherty of Loyola University-Chicago asked 851 participants in an online survey about their support for building more nuclear power plants. He also asked respondents if they wanted U.S. senators to do “what people in the country as a whole want or more interested in doing what people in their own state want.” Most said they wanted the senator to serve the interests of the nation, first and foremost.

Two weeks later these respondents were again contacted and asked to read a short story about a U.S. Senator preparing to vote on a bill funding construction of a new nuclear power plant.

But there was a twist: Three details were manipulated in the vignette. One half of the sample read that that the senator favored the bill; the other half were informed that the lawmaker would vote against it.  Similarly, half the respondents were told that polling data showed that most people in the state supported the legislation while most people in the country opposed it, and vice-versa. Finally, the groups were either told that the senator represented their own state or a different state.

Respondents were then asked, “based on the senator’s decision to support/oppose the bill, how would you rate the job this Senator is doing as a representative?”

By a landslide, people thought the Senator who voted with his state’s majority on this issue was doing a better job than one who sided with the consensus of the country.  The study also found that people gave even higher marks to a senator who put state concerns over national priorities if the lawmaker was identified as being from their state.

“When presented with a concrete instance where the preferences of a legislator’s district conflict with those of the broader public, people prefer representatives who side with district preferences,” Doherty concluded, according to an article in the latest issue of Public Opinion Quarterly.

Even among respondents who said in the first round of questioning that they preferred lawmakers to vote in line with the national majority gave higher marks to the senator who consistently voted with the majority view in his or her state, he found.

However, it should be noted that these results assume that study respondents and the general public view survey results as accurate reflections of national and state interests, a presumption that was not tested in this study.  Also, the dichotomy between national interest versus state interest is often not as crisp as this experiment suggests and may be a hard distinction for people to make.

Still, three other studies that used the same vignette approach but referenced different issues—stem cell research, farm subsidies and a bill capping carbon emissions—produced the same basic finding.  Substantial margins preferred a U.S representative or senator who voted consistent with his constituency to one who put the nation’s priorities first.

So, what does this prove?  The study’s author says legislators who ‘nobly’ put national preferences ahead of local ones will be punished by constituents. “Instead,” he wrote, “they suggest that people understand the incentives representatives face and (all else equal) prefer legislators who respond to them.”

Category: Social Studies

Topics: Congress

  1. Photo of Rich Morin

    is a senior editor focusing on social and demographic trends at Pew Research Center.