What Politicians Believe About Electoral Accountability
40 Pages Posted: 14 Jan 2019
Date Written: October 31, 2018
Despite legislators’ incentives to respond to their constituents’ opinions on salient issues, they often take positions at odds with public opinion in their districts. These gaps in dyadic representation can arise because of politicians’ perceptions of which constituents will hold them accountable for their actions in office and of their potential future electoral opponents. Using original survey data from more the 3,000 candidates running for state legislative office in 2014 and 2016, I document American politicians’ beliefs about important factors influencing electoral accountability. To test to whom politicians believe they must be responsive, I survey their perceptions of which citizens are most likely to vote and pay attention to their actions in office. I find asymmetries in politicians’ beliefs about to whom they must be accountable. Politicians perceive the partisan makeup of their districts fairly accurately but overestimate the Republican share of the district’s residents. Candidates from both parties underestimated Democratic turnout in 2014. In a conjoint experiment, candidates from both parties believed that Republicans and citizens with conservative issue positions were more likely to turn out and to pay attention to what they do in office. Republican candidates are also more likely to fear losing in future primary elections than Democrats are. Candidates’ perceptions suggest that they would strategically respond more to conservative constituents, possibly exacerbating asymmetric polarization.
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