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Up With Chris Hayes
updated 3/10/2013 7:47:40 AM ET 2013-03-10T11:47:40

A new working paper published this week by two political science graduate students may help explain why Americans' faith in Congress has dipped to historic lows: Politicians tend to vastly overestimate just how conservative their constituents really are.

We’ve been through roughly two years of successive battles over taxes and spending — first over the Bush tax cuts, then the so-called “fiscal cliff,” then the “sequester” and, soon, the federal budget — and throughout each of those skirmishes politicians on both sides of the aisle have insisted that we must cut spending and reform ‘entitlements.” But polls show consistently that most voters don’t want those things. Vast majorities of Americans think spending cuts will hurt the economy, want to reduce the deficit through a mix of tax increases and spending cuts and want to preserve funding for cherished social insurance programs like Medicare and Social Security.

So why do politicians seem convinced that the American people want austerity? A fascinating new working paper published this week by two political science graduate students may offer an answer: Politicians tend to vastly overestimate just how conservative their constituents really are. The paper, co-authored by Christopher Skovron of the University of Michigan and David Broockman of the University of California Berkeley, finds that conservative politicians in particular are terrible at gauging the political views of their constituents. For example, they tend to underestimate support for policies like universal health care and same-sex marriage by as much as 20 percentage points. Liberal politicians underestimate support for those policies, too, but not by nearly as much.

The authors report this especially stunning distillation of their findings: “Nearly half of sitting conservative officeholders appear to believe that they represent a district that is more conservative on these issues than the most conservative legislative district in the entire country.”

The paper — which has not been peer-reviewed or published in an academic journal yet — has the potential to explain so much about American politics, about how the contours of the national political dialogue are set and about the behavior and strategic choices of our politicians. For one, it would explain why Americans’ faith in Congress as an institution has dipped to historic lows. It would also explain why the political “center” seems so far out of step with the policy priorities of the median voter. And, perhaps most of all, the findings might offer an explanation for the asymmetric polarization we’ve seen take hold in Washington over the last 30 years or so: Conservatives have gotten much, much more conservative, while liberals have remained just as liberal as they were decades ago.

That asymmetric polarization has essentially paralyzed Washington. And, moreover, it is completely disconnected from the actual political attitudes of American voters over the last 30 years. For example: According to the DW-NOMINATE scale, a tool for rating the ideologies of lawmakers devised by political scientist Keith Poole, House Republicans are now more than three times as conservative as they were in 1976. In fact, today the most moderate House Republicans are more extreme than the most extreme House Republicans were in the 1970s. But that unprecedented rightward drift is completely divorced from the American electorate: Since 1976, for example, the share of Americans describing themselves as “conservative” has remained virtually unchanged.

There are a number of possible explanations for this disconnect. For one, politicians are much more beholden to the donor class that funds their campaigns than they are to their actual constituents, and as political scientists have found, the priorities of the wealthy are vastly different from the priorities of the public at large. Another possible explanation is that voters are generally bad at expressing policy preferences in the abstract. They’re much more accurate — and, generally, more liberal — about their own views when answering specific questions about discrete policies, like whether we should raise taxes on the wealthy.

Whatever the explanation, it seems clear that politicians think Americans are much more conservative than they actually are. And that  finding explains so much about how broken and dysfunctional our politics have become.

Video: The mystery behind everything messed up about our politics

  1. Closed captioning of: The mystery behind everything messed up about our politics

    >>> one of the enduring an mystifying paradoxes of american politics , politicians on both sides of the aisle seem to have a larger appetite than conservative voters themselves do. here's house speaker john boehner in february calling for more spending cuts to reduce the deficit, insisting the american people agree with him.

    >> the number one priority for the american people is creating jobs and getting our spending under control. the american people believe that the tax question has been settled. americans know that another tax hike isn't going to help them. what they want is for the spending under control. republicans may not be the majority party here in washington, but the american people would agree with us on this. and we're going to continue to stand with the american people .

    >> stirring oration as ever from john boehner . actual polls say boehner is wrong about what the american want. according to polls conducted by the pew research and " usa today " in february, 62% of americans think the budget cuts that took effect on march 1st know that the budget cuts will will be an effect. so if the appetite on conservative policies are so limited why are the republicans convinced that the americans agree with hthem.

    >> the working paper pound that politicians tend to vastly overestimate just how conservative their constituents are. researchers found that liberal politicians tend to underestimate support for health care , by five or ten points. conservative politicians do even worse . they underestimate support in their districts for universal health care by a stunning 20 points. the same trend holds through for a social issue like same-sex marriage. liberal politicians seem to underestimate same- sex machine by five percentage points. conservatives underestimate by over 20 percentage point. they overestimate how conservative their constituents are. no wonder, we're talking about for instance cutting social security and limiting eligibility and medicare rather than say, raising social security benefits and lowering the medicare age. the findings find so much about the behavior of politicians it may be no less than the rosetta stone of american politician . joining me, jeff smith an assistant professor at the milano, the new school for management and urban policy. and chris govern, a graduate student . and one of the co-authors along with david brockman of the university of california berkley about their constituents. obviously, i love this paper because it's like a huge, huge hit of confirmation bias for me. so thank you for providing data which maps up my presifting bias. walk us through how you did this. the data that this is built on is fascinating. what do you do here?

    >> thanks, chris . in august, we teamed up with conclusion at duke and nick kansas, we launched the national candidate study. we interviewed about 2,000 candidates for legislative office across the country. part of the study, we asked them to estimate which share of their constituents supports policies. we then used a national example for that support, compared their accuracy and found pretty while inaccuracies. the data is all over the place. but there is this conservative bias that shows up there.

    >> and the conservative bias is interesting. it's consistent across how conservative the districts themselves are. it's consistent across a variety of things. it's just like the data, empirical, but data jumps out.

    >> yes, we must emphasize that it hasn't been peer reviewed. there is a systematic trend. we looked for things that we predict might predict accuracy as well as the ideology. things like age and race. this is the big one that jumped out at us.

    >> a relationship between how competitive that district is about how well you know where your constituents are on this kind of thing.

    >> incumbency didn't affect it. we also went back and asked respondents back in november after the election and they didn't improve either.

    >> so the election happens you get the democratic feedback, what's the term you guys used, constituency control? that could be the mechanic. you run for office and you say, i hate, smiame-sex marriage. and then you lose. then you say, i really got wrong my district?

    >> is this the vocal minority problem you? think about electives -- and it's not like the way they have the money available to run constant polls and constant town hall meetings . so they're gauging their positions on the constituents based on what comes to them?

    >> we should know, you of course as a state legislator , there's one level that state legislators could be closer to constituents because there's fewer and more local. but on another level because you're typical and can't afford to run polls?

    >> right. and they have sort of a war chest to keep with, with congressional leads, several millions. an average state legislator might have a war chest of $5,000 or $10,000. so they don't have the funds to be doing that. now, of course, you should be knocking on doors all the time. you should always be taking a poll. but another exception to that is a lot of state legislators have other jobs. they've got to make a living doing something else. they don't have the time to talk to voters out there. i know, chris , you didn't find a difference based on whether the state legislators were professionalized or citizen legislators, did you?

    >> that's right. just to the state legislators that we think of highly professionalized. and the pattern held there and asymmetrical inaccuracies.

    >> there's two different things that a legislator could be responding to. there's all the constituents and then a subset of that, your supporters. in the republican party , especially today, i think that republican politicians are very responsive, scared.

    >> yes.

    >> of their supporters.

    >> yes.

    >> and so i think calls -- counts as constituency control. but a subset of your constituent. on the democratic party , i think the dynamic is the other way. i think that a lot of times you see the democratic base moving with their leaders.

    >> yeah.

    >> most democrats now support the flying death drone about the drone program. so now republicans are polling their constituents.

    >> and i think it's something that changed a lot in the last several years. if you look back to 2004 , the insurgents with net roots pulled the democratic party towards the left.

    >> that's right.

    >> now, in 2005 , 2006 , you got a sense of that starting to change after we lost the 2004 election yet people like chuck schumer and rahm emanuel running the two senate house campaign committees. yet they took nominees like bob casey in pennsylvania saying hey, he the nominee. we don't want barbara hafer . we want a pro-life guy. that started the democratic party top-down control. at the same time, you see in the republican party , the ted cruz , the marco rubio . the rand paul.

    >> yeah.

    >> let's say that the data does hold up. first of all i want to show this because i do think -- the first question is, is your prediction that this gap would shrink or expand if you did this for members of congress?

    >> you know, i think it's interesting -- i think that it's interesting that you're talking with jeff about size of district and connection with the constituents. we intuitively think that they would be closer. the kinds of questions we've been asking, give us a number, you need polls to do that very accurately.

    >> right, right.

    >> it depends on whether we value representation.

    >> but here's something that i think suggests that the same trend might be the case in -- at an actual level. house republicans have gotten more conservative while the share of voters describing themselves as conservative has stayed the same. in 1976 , the percent of voters that described themselves as conservative was 32%. 2012 , 35%. it's a fairly stable group . conservative rating of house republicans on the dw nominating score which we use all the time goes straight up. there's a wedge between what's happening there even if you haven't run the data at the national level. part of the reason i find the data so compelling precisely as we see at this natural level. when we come back, i want to talk about what account for it. there's a whole bunch of theories we could throw out. i thought yours was very interesting. sometimes

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