Electoral Vulnerability, Party Affiliation, and Dyadic Constituency Responsiveness in U.S. Legislatures

Date01 July 2020
Published date01 July 2020
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2020, Vol. 48(4) 484 –491
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X19891990
In modern democracies, there is a normative expectation that
legislators pursue the preferences of their constituents
(Rehfeld, 2009), but a number of studies question whether
this usually takes place (Bartels, 2008; Gerber, 1996; Gilens,
2011; Lax & Phillips, 2012; Masket & Noel, 2012; Rhodes &
Schaffner, 2017; Snyder, 1996). Scholars have examined how
electoral pressures may shape responsiveness (Gay, 2007;
Griffin, 2006; Kuklinski, 1977), but we know less than we
might because relatively few studies examine dyadic congru-
ence because many studies rely on broad indicators of opin-
ion or ideology (Wlezien, 2017) rather than the detailed
policy proposals on which legislators actually vote.
Furthermore, in modern democracies political parties are
important to representation, and left and right parties have
different representational orientations (Korpi, 1978), espe-
cially in the United States, where recent research suggests
that Democrats and Republicans view their representational
roles very differently (Grossmann & Hopkins, 2016) and
interact with different types of constituents (Broockman &
Skovron, 2018). This suggests that Democrats and
Republicans may respond to constituency opinion and elec-
toral pressures in different ways, which we examine in this
Whether policymakers generally act in line with the peo-
ple that they represent is a critical question for students of
democracy (Beyer & Hänni, 2018). There are many factors
that might shape this process, but electoral considerations
are thought to be critical in ensuring responsiveness to dis-
trict opinion (Gay, 2007; Griffin, 2006; Kuklinski, 1977;
Mansbridge, 2003). Scholars have noted that in winner-
take-all systems like the United States, electoral pressures
should cause responsiveness to the district median (Downs,
1957). However, it may be that primary elections mean that
the median voter is not so important to U.S. legislators. In
addition, there is emerging evidence that responsiveness
varies considerably across parties. Conservative parties
may generally have less of an ability to anticipate or
respond to the preferences of the district median because
they interact more with upper class individuals and groups
(Broockman & Skovron, 2018; Korpi, 1978). In the United
States specifically, it seems that Democrats view represent-
ing external groups as a key feature of the party’s mission,
whereas Republicans tend to view themselves as fulfilling
an ideological project (Grossmann & Hopkins, 2016), lead-
ing Democrats to be more responsive to public opinion in
891990APRXXX10.1177/1532673X19891990American Politics ResearchGiger et al.
1University of Geneva, Switzerland
2Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany
3The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, USA
Corresponding Author:
Christopher Witko, The Pennsylvania State University, 325 Pond Lab,
Penn State, University Park, PA 16802, USA.
Email: cxw877@psu.edu
Electoral Vulnerability, Party Affiliation,
and Dyadic Constituency Responsiveness
in U.S. Legislatures
Nathalie Giger1, Heike Klüver2, and Christopher Witko3
It is often argued that electoral vulnerability is critical to constituency responsiveness. We investigate this possibility
using different measures of vulnerability, but argue that in the United States the Republican Party may be less responsive
than the Democratic Party due to its core constituency and view of representation. We test our hypotheses relying
on an innovative research design that exploits referenda in U.S. states to compare legislator voting behavior with voter
preferences on exactly the same policy proposal, allowing us to overcome the measurement problems of much previous
research. Based on a newly compiled data set of more than 3,000 voting decisions for 818 legislators on 27 referenda, we
find high levels of congruence, but that congruence with the median voter is higher for legislators who are running for
reelection. We also find that Democrats are more responsive after a close election but that Republicans are not sensitive
to electoral margins.
responsiveness, representation, parties, referenda, marginality

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