Extremity in Congress: Communications versus Votes

Published date01 August 2016
Date01 August 2016
AuthorLindsey Cormack
Stevens Institute of Technology
Extremity in Congress:
Communications versus Votes
I propose a theory of legislator-to-constituent communication that describes a
relationship between the types of votes a legislator reveals and the partisan composition
of her constituency. To test this theory, I use an original data set of 40,000 official
communications containing 30,000 vote revelations from the 111th Congress. I find
evidence substantiating this theory; the extent to which a legislator endeavors to appear
more ideologically extreme in communications varies systematically with the relative
amounts of different types of voters in her district. This result is contrasted with an
analysis of voting extremism where I find that the ideological preferences of donors
better explain voting patterns.
If all we knew about a legislator was what she told us, would our
understanding of her ideology differ from what we would learn from
relying on direct observation of voting behavior? Do different factors
correlate with how legislators vote versus how legislators decide to selec-
tively communicate some of those votes to constituents? The answers to
these questions are important for our understanding of democratic
accountability as strategic communication techniques may alter voters’
ability to assess the ideological positions of their representatives. To bet-
ter hold legislators accountable, voters need an accurate understanding of
legislator ideology. If legislators attempt to shift perceptions of their
ideology by selectively revealing votes, voters may end up falsely feeling
more informed, even though this information may be strategically
In this article, I present a theory of strategic vote revelation that
yields a testable hypothesis about how differently situated legislators
present their votes. Put simply, when deciding whether to reveal a vote
that splits a legislator’s constituents, a legislator faces a choice of whom
to alienate. A long line of research, starting with Cox and McCubbins
(1986), indicates that the relevant and most likely voters for each legisla-
tor can be divided into two camps: base and swing voters. Given this
division, I hypothesize those legislators who anticipate a higher marginal
DOI: 10.1111/lsq.12126
C2016 Washington University in St. Louis
risk of vote abstention or defection associated with alienating base voters
will tend to omit votes in which they more likely sided with the preferen-
ces of swing voters and vice versa. The aggregate effect of this self-
censoring is for legislators to present an ideological version of self in
communications that may differ systematically from that suggested by
their voting behavior. I situate my theory of strategic communication
against literature analyzing ties between f‌inancial donors and legislator
voting behavior to assess likely sources for the potential divergence
of voting and communicating (Bartels 2008; Bonica, McCarty, and
Rosenthal 2013; Gilens 2009). I seek to provide answers to the following
questions: (1) Do legislators engage in systematic attempts to shift
ideological perceptions of their policy preferences in their communica-
tions? (2) If so, which factors are most related to voting strategy, and
which are most related to communication strategy?
To test my theory, I analyze an original data set of over 40,000
legislator-to-constituent communications sent during the 111th
Congress, using a methodological innovation building on the ideal-
point-estimation technique of Clinton, Jackman, and Rivers (2004).
During this period, 95% of Representatives and 85% of Senators sent
off‌icial electronic messages to constituents. Using the votes a legislator
reveals in her communications, I estimate a communicated ideal point
(CIP) and compare this to her behavioral ideal point (BIP), which is
based on her full voting history. It is useful to study these communications
because, unlike media reports, broadcast interviews, or f‌loor speeches—
all of which are subject to external constraints, i.e., different agenda set-
ters, specif‌ic interview questions, and time limits that may compel certain
types of speech—off‌icial messages are optional, and the scope of each
message is at the discretion of the sender.
Strategic vote revelation may
have consequences for voter knowledge as somewhere between 14 and
19% of US adults report they have subscribed to off‌icial congressional
communications at some point (Ansolabehere and Schaffner 2012).
I f‌ind that there is a positive correlation between CIP and BIP esti-
mates, but this relationship is not perfect, and, on average, the measures
are distinct. Second, I observe an overall leftward ideological shift, with
CIP estimates being more extreme for Democrats and more moderate for
Republicans than BIP estimates. Third, I f‌ind that the likelihood that a
legislator presents a CIP that is more extreme than her BIP is conditional
on district characteristics, most importantly the ratio of base-to-swing
voters. Fourth, I conf‌irm f‌indings that relate donor ideological extremity
to voting extremity. I conclude with a discussion of why different factors
likely contribute to voting strategy versus communication strategy and
the implications of this divergence.
576 Lindsey Cormack

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