Elite Political Ignorance: Law, Data, and the Representation of (Mis)Perceived Electorates

66 Pages Posted: 13 Sep 2017 Last revised: 18 Feb 2020

See all articles by Christopher S. Elmendorf

Christopher S. Elmendorf

University of California, Davis - School of Law

Abby K. Wood

University of Southern California Gould School of Law

Date Written: July 9, 2018


It is common to think of political elites—candidates, legislators, party officials, and campaign advisers—as specialists in learning the preferences of voters. But recent studies find that political elites believe public opinion within legislative districts to be more conservative than it actually is, and that extreme candidates are more electable than moderates (despite compelling evidence to the contrary). Campaign staffers overestimate their candidate’s electoral prospects. Moreover, natural and researcher-designed experiments show that informing legislators about constituency preferences changes roll-call votes, as legislators recalibrate to better represent public opinion in their districts.

This Article introduces the problem of elite political ignorance to the legal- academic literature. We review political science findings on elite (mis)perceptions of voter preferences, and we explore the likely benefits and costs of reducing elite political ignorance. The immediate impacts would probably include better alignment between the roll-call votes of representatives and the policy preferences of their constituents; reduced political polarization; less racial discrimination by campaigns and representatives; and lower-cost enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. However, over time, a reduction in elite ignorance could also engender more severe and enduring partisan gerrymanders; greater political and demographic skew in the population of regular voters; more inequity in the provision of constituent services; and microtargeted campaigns that slowly erode democracy-sustaining norms and belief structures in the public.

We argue that most of the benefits of reduced political ignorance could be realized without incurring such costs if elites acquired better information about the distribution of voter preferences within districts, without learning the preferences of identifiable individuals. To this end, we propose that states (1) reduce the amount of political information in the official voter file, (2) adopt rules that make it somewhat more cumbersome for social media companies to develop and market political profiles of their users, and (3) enact campaign-finance voucher programs subject to an unusual disclosure rule, under which the state would conceal voucher-donor identities from the recipient and the general public, while revealing geocoded voucher-contribution histories.

Keywords: elections, perceptions of voters, information, campaigns, voter file, big data, social media, vouchers, campaign finance, alignment

Suggested Citation

Elmendorf, Christopher S. and Wood, Abby K., Elite Political Ignorance: Law, Data, and the Representation of (Mis)Perceived Electorates (July 9, 2018). 52 UC Davis Law Review 571 (2019), UC Davis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 17-19, USC Law Legal Studies Paper No. 17-19, USC CLASS Research Paper No. CLASS17-21, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3034685 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3034685

Christopher S. Elmendorf (Contact Author)

University of California, Davis - School of Law ( email )

Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall
Davis, CA CA 95616-5201
United States
530-752-5756 (Phone)
530-753-5311 (Fax)

Abby K. Wood

University of Southern California Gould School of Law ( email )

699 Exposition Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90089
United States

HOME PAGE: http://weblaw.usc.edu/contact/contactInfo.cfm?detailID=71046

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