Politicians, especially conservative ones, massively overestimate the conservatism of their constituents on the issues of gay marriage and universal health care, an academic paper published Sunday has found.
David E. Broockman of the University of California at Berkeley and Christopher Skovron of the University of Michigan surveyed nearly 2,000 state legislative candidates in the 2012 election and asked them what percentage of their constituents they thought supported same-sex marriage, a universal health care system and abolishing all welfare programs.
The result was a vast conservative misperception. Constituents, on average, supported gay marriage and universal health care by 10 percentage points more than their politicians had estimated. For conservative politicians, the spread was around 20 percentage points, meaning that conservative legislators tend to greatly overestimate how conservative their constituents actually are.
"For perspective, 20 percentage points is roughly the difference in partisanship between California and Alabama," the authors write. "Most politicians appear to believe they are representing constituents who are considerably different than their actual constituents."
The authors note that the conservative imbalance is particularly severe. "This difference is so large that nearly half of conservative politicians appear to believe that they represent a district that is more conservative on these issues than is the most conservative district in the entire country," they write.
The authors note that their findings rebuke Nixonian notions of a "silent majority," or more recently, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's contention that "real America" supported her and Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz) 2008 ticket.
Moreover, the findings seem to have different implications for conservative and liberal politicians. Many conservative legislators, fearing primary challengers more than a general election against a Democrat, are perhaps more responsive to pressure to move further right, even while their constituents hold a different view.
For liberal politicians, they appear to have more freedom than they may have initially perceived to act on issues such as gay marriage and health care. But the perception that constituents' wishes are more limited means that a politician may think that 60 percent of constituents need to agree before moving forward with a policy, hence, the idea of a universal health care system is often seen as out-of-reach, though it may not be.