It May Not Seem That Way, but Politicians Often Do What Voters Want

Do politicians care what voters want? New evidence may suggest they don’t — and many voters are skeptical, too. A 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center reports that less than half the country says elected officials care what ordinary people think.

In reality, policy outcomes at the state, congressional district and city levels suggest politicians at least act as if they care. Both within and across parties, there is a clear connection between the opinions voters hold and the actual policies that politicians put in place.

To take a recent example, why did the overwhelming majority of Republican politicians remain silent this week after President Trump directed four minority congresswomen to “go back” where they came from? It’s surely significant that according to YouGov, only 19 percent of Republicans thought the president’s weekend tweets were racist (compared with 88 percent of Democrats).

Whether or how faithfully elected officials represent the wishes of their constituents has been a focus of political science research for decades. Data limitations once made the question hard to answer, but not anymore. The internet has made it possible to gather the opinions of hundreds of thousands of Americans nationwide and to compare those opinions to legislators’ votes and the policies they put in place.

We investigated the issue with data from two political scientists, Chris Warshaw of George Washington University and Devin Caughey from M.I.T., and survey data on dozens of policy questions that describe the average ideology of voters in cities and states across the country.

One major policy decision by city governments is how to tax residents. Sales taxes are one of the most regressive sources of tax revenues — they take a greater share of income from poor people than from wealthier ones. One measure of the liberalism of a city’s tax policies is what share of its tax revenue comes from sales taxes. If politicians are attuned to their constituents, we would expect to see liberal places collecting less revenue from sales tax than more conservative places are.

An analysis of the relationship between voters’ ideologies and their cities’ tax revenues (in states that allow municipalities to collect sales taxes) shows that cities such as Phoenix and San Antonio (where more conservatives live) have larger shares of their tax revenue generated by sales taxes than more liberal cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago do.

The same type of relationship exists for other policy outcomes as well, such as city expenditures or tax revenues per capita. Not surprisingly, liberal cities tax and spend more than conservative cities. That this pattern corresponds with the opinions of voters in those places, however, may surprise anyone who thinks politicians don’t care what voters want.

The same pattern is evident at the state level. State politicians make choices about a wide variety of issues, accounting for more than a third of overall government spending. These include decisions about things like the state income tax rate or how to spend federal dollars that arrive as block grants.

One example of such a block grant is the federal program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. TANF, meant to help families with children when they cannot provide for their basic needs, gives states discretion in how they spend the money. Some states set low limits on cash-based assistance; others allow much more.

Plotting the ideology of voters and each state’s maximum TANF benefit reveals a familiar trend: As a state’s share of liberal voters increases, so does the generosity of the benefits. New York and Massachusetts spend the money differently from Mississippi and Tennessee in a way that parallels the political views of their citizens.

As in cities, this pattern can be seen across other state policies, like the income tax rate.

These patterns are not meant to suggest that politicians are exactly as liberal or conservative as their average constituent, but that the views of constituents play a role in policy outcomes.

Elected officials may not know the polling results of their constituents’ positions on issues, and few politicians may look at new opinion data on their constituents when it becomes available, as new research suggests. This doesn’t mean that politicians never update their beliefs about what people want as information changes. Politicians typically have an image of their constituency rooted in more than just poll numbers, perhaps one that is more related to what needs to be delivered to voters to get re-elected rather than one based on accurately capturing mass opinion.

American democracy has room for improvement, but that doesn’t mean it’s no democracy at all.

Politicians who fail to deliver the level of government support or rate of taxation expected by their constituents — particularly those constituents who are critical to their re-election — may find themselves out of a job. That politicians learn about these levels from a variety of experiences in office should not be surprising. One way or another, most elected officials manage to do things their voters want them to do.