Public Expectations of State Legislators

AuthorJennifer Wolak
Published date01 May 2017
Date01 May 2017
University of Colorado
Public Expectations of State
When members of Congress neglect the needs of their districts or vote contrary
to the wishes of their constituents, their public approval suffe rs.Does the same hold true
for representatives at the state level? Using experiments, I explore whether people dole
out similar rewards and penalties to state legislators and members of Congress for their
successes and shortfalls in representing constituents. I find that a similar model of politi-
cal accountability travels from national politics to state politics. People value policy
representation, casework, and attention to the district as much from state legislators as
they do from members of Congress.
When a member of Congress votes contrary to the preferences of
his district, he risks electoral retribution. When a state legislator sets aside
the interests of constituents, are the consequences the same? I investigate
whether people expect different kinds of representation from state legis-
lators than they do from members of Congress. Using experiments, I
explore the degree to which people have distinctive expectations of how
state legislators should spend their time, serve their districts, and vote on
Existing evidence suggests that people use distinctive frameworks
of evaluation at each level of government. In surveys and in focus
groups, people say that they value different things from state government
than they do from national government (Grill 2007; Jennings 1998).
State legislators also work within a legislative environment that is dis-
tinctive from what members of Congress experience. State legislators are
closer to their constituents, in off‌ices with less professionalization and in
districts with greater homogeneity. Given these differences in how state
legislators connect to their constituents, people may develop distinctive
expectations of legislators across federal levels.
Yet lessons from political psychology cast doubt on the idea that
people develop unique expectations of elected off‌icials across contexts. To
develop different prototypes of ideal legislators at each level of govern-
ment is a cognitively diff‌icult task. Lacking the motivation or information
DOI: 10.1111/lsq.12147
C2016 Washington University in St. Louis
to truly differentiate state legislative service from congressional service,
people may instead evaluate state legislators and members of Congress on
similar terms.
Even though state legislators have smaller districts and
fewer resources, many of the key aspects of the job are similar across lev-
els of government: Both state legislators and members of Congress
represent their district in how they vote on bills, the time they spend in the
district, and their attention to constituent needs.
To investigate people’s expectations of state legislators, I turn to
experiments. One of the main hurdles to understanding public percep-
tions of state legislators is the absence of nationally representative
surveys on this topic. While others have relied on single-state or several-
state surveys (Patterson, Hedlund, and Boynton 1975; Patterson, Ripley,
and Quinlan 1992; Squire 1993), experiments offer another opportunity
to explore public perceptions of state legislators. By using experiments, I
can gather causal evidence on whether people use different standards of
evaluation at the state and national level, without worries about
confounds like prior attitudes or information levels.
In the experiment, I present participants with vignettes describing
different kinds of representation, varying whether the representative is a
member of Congress or a state legislator. By experimentally manipulat-
ing the legislator’s level of government, I can explore whether different
styles of representation, from policy congruence to casework, dole out
equal dividends to legislators at the state level as they do at the national
level. If the same kind of legislative activity is rated differently when it
describes a state legislator, it will serve as evidence that people hold
legislators to distinct standards of evaluation depending on the level of
government served.
Investigating whether people hold different expectations of legisla-
tors at the state and national level is important for several reasons. First,
for those who study public evaluations of state government, this research
informs lingering debates about just how distinctive public opinion of
state politics is from national politics. While we have extensively studied
the roots of approval and vote choice for members of Congress, much
less is known about how people think about their state representatives.
As such, we sometimes assume a similar sort of model travels from Con-
gress to the states, where people punish and reward state legislators for
their performance in similar ways as members of Congress. However, if
I f‌ind that people hold state and national elected off‌icials to fundamen-
tally different standards of evaluation, we may wish to rethink how we
study public evaluations of state government. It may be that models of
legislator support developed at the national level are not easily portable
to the state level.
176 Jennifer Wolak
Understanding people’s expectations of state legislators informs
the foundations of public trust in state government. While we know
little about what people even expect of their state politicians, such
expectations are arguably the foundation of public trust in state gov-
ernment. People’s approval and trust of legislatures rests in part on
the degree to which politicians fulf‌ill citizen expectations of how poli-
ticians should perform their jobs (Grant and Rudolph 2004; Kimball
and Patterson 1997; Patterson, Hedlund, and Boynton 1975). When
people perceive that politicians are falling short of expectations, they
disapprove of government. To understand why people trust their state
government, we need to know more about what the public expects
from politicians at the state level.
This research is also important to those interested in understanding
public expectations about styles of representation. There is new interest in
political science in understanding both the ways that legislators choose to
serve the needs of their constituents as well as public expectations about
what kinds of representation is best (e.g., Barker and Carman 2012; Doherty
2013; Grimmer 2013; Harden 2015). Others have shown that people differ-
ently reward legislators for different kinds of legislator responsiveness as a
function of their personal traits. I consider whether public expectations of
legislator roles also vary across contexts, where some kinds of representation
are favored in one domain versus another. If people interpret legislative
behavior differently for state legislators than for members of Congress, it
suggests people def‌ine representational roles uniquely across contexts. If
people have broad expectations of what it means for a legislator to serve
constituents, independent of the level of government, it means that public
expectations of representative roles are symbolic and abstract.
Finally, for those who study legislative behavior, it is useful to
know whether voters expect different kinds of representation from state
legislators than members of Congress. Service in the state legislature is a
common step to higher off‌ice and later service in Congress. As politi-
cians move up the ladder of progressive ambition, should they consider
adapting the ways they interact with their constituents? These experi-
ments inform whether the representational style of a state legislator will
successfully travel to a congressional district.
Representative Roles and Public Expectations
Legislators can represent the interests of their constituents in many
ways. They can rally for legislation that they believe will make the country
a better place. They can vote to support bills that they believe will benef‌it
their constituents. They can invest in helping people get what they need
177Public Expectations of State Legislators

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