Conservative Bias in Perceptions of Public Opinion Among American Political Elites

Conservative Bias in Perceptions of Public Opinion Among American Political Elites

By David Broockman, Christopher Skovron
March 9,2017Working Paper No. 3513

The conservative asymmetry of elite polarization and the right-skewed “democratic deficit”—wherein policy is more conservative than majorities prefer on average—represent significant puzzles. We argue that such breakdowns in aggregate representation can arise because politicians systematically misperceive constituency opinion. We demonstrate this argument in US states, where conservative citizens are more active in the public spheres politicians monitor, which we hypothesized might distort politicians’ perceptions of public opinion. With original surveys of 3,765 politicians’ perceptions of constituency opinion on nine issues, we find politicians of both parties dramatically overestimate their constituents’ support for conservative policies. This pattern is robust across methods, years, issues, districts, and states. We also show Republicans overestimate constituency conservatism especially and that this partisan difference may arise from differences in politicians’ information environments. Our findings suggest a novel way democratic representation may fail: politicians can systematically misperceive what their constituents want.