Representation When Constituent Opinion and District Conditions Collide

Published date01 September 2018
Date01 September 2018
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18sKoiS43ICboS/input 755973PRQXXX10.1177/1065912918755973Political Research QuarterlyAdler et al.
Political Research Quarterly
2018, Vol. 71(3) 681 –694
Representation When Constituent
© 2018 University of Utah
Reprints and permissions:
Opinion and District Conditions Collide
DOI: 10.1177/1065912918755973
E. Scott Adler1, Adam F. Cayton2, and John D. Griffin1
When constituent opinion and district conditions point in two different directions, which factor is most influential
for representatives who face important legislative roll calls? To address this question, we combine four types of data
for the period from 2000 to 2012: key congressional roll call votes, district-level survey data, objective measures of
district conditions, and other district demographics. We show (1) that material conditions in a district have an effect
on legislative behavior independent of constituents’ opinions; (2) that opinions are not always a better predictor of
lawmaker decisions, compared to conditions; and (3) that whether lawmakers tend to reflect constituent opinions or
district conditions is a function of the demographic makeup of their districts.
representation, roll call votes, Congress, vote choice, public opinion
the CHIP bill, but where her constituents were very sup-
portive of the program. Republican Jim Saxton (NJ-3)
In 2007, the new Democratic majority in Congress passed
represented a similarly affluent district but one that was
H.R. 976, a reauthorization and $35 million expansion of
less supportive of CHIP. McCarthy voted yes, Saxton no,
the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)—a pro-
reflecting the difference in their constituents’ opinions.1
gram that provides health coverage for children in finan-
Figure 1 plots the CHIP roll call votes for the subset of
cial need. Congress passed the legislation but failed to
congressional lawmakers representing conflicted districts.
override President Bush’s veto. Forty-four Republicans
Specifically, we plot the votes of members of Congress
and two Democrats voted against the majority of their
(MCs) who represented districts that were, according to
party in the attempted override vote.
public-opinion polls, either more opposed to CHIP than
Many of the party defectors represented what we
the average district and simultaneously more likely than
might term “conflicted districts”—where conditions in
the average district to benefit from it due to the district’s
the district point to one vote choice and constituents’
poverty rate (upper-left quadrant), or hailed from districts
opinions point to another. Take, for example, Rick Renzi
that were more supportive of CHIP than average but had a
(AZ-1), a Republican among that party’s defectors.
lower-than-average poverty rate and thus were less likely
Almost 70 percent of Renzi’s district, according to polls
to benefit from the bill’s passage (lower-right quadrant).
taken at the time, were opposed to CHIP expansion, but
We ask, when district conditions and constituent opin-
as one of the poorer districts in the country, many of its
ion diverge, which of these does the legislator represent?
residents stood to directly benefit from it. Renzi defied
In the examples illustrated above, some lawmakers
district opinion and the majority of his party colleagues
seemed to side with public opinion in their district while
and voted in favor of the legislation. Alternatively,
others followed their district’s objective conditions—and
Republican Greg Walden (OR-2) represented a district
frequently this action was taken in opposition to the
that was similarly opposed to CHIP, but was somewhat
overwhelming majority of their party. How widespread
better off economically than Renzi’s district. Walden
are these patterns and how might they be explained?
voted against the bill. Taken together, these lawmakers
were responsive to the divergent material condition of
1University of Colorado Boulder, USA
their districts, as their party affiliations were the same and
2University of West Florida, Pensacola, USA
their constituents’ opinions were nearly so.
In the other type of conflicted district, Democrat
Corresponding Author:
Adam F. Cayton, Department of Government 50/124, University of
Carolyn McCarthy (NY-4), represented an affluent dis-
West Florida, 11000 University Parkway, Pensacola, FL 32514, USA.
trict where few constituents would benefit directly from

Political Research Quarterly 71(3)
Figure 1. Constituent opinion, district conditions, and roll call voting on the 2007 CHIP extension.
CHIP = Children’s Health Insurance Program; CC = clunker conservative; LL = limousine liberal (see definitions below).
Source. Percent Opposed to CHIP Expansion obtained from 2007 Cooperative Congressional Election Study. Percent Not in Poverty obtained
from the 2007 American Community Survey, U.S. Census.
These are important questions in a representative
opinions tend to predominate. Because we know that pat-
democracy. Indeed, political philosophers such as terns of representation often vary,2 we disaggregate these
Edmund Burke, John Stuart Mill, and Robert Dahl have
conflicted districts according to whether they exhibited
weighed in on the normative version of this question—
liberal opinion and conservative conditions or conserva-
how should representatives represent? While extant stud-
tive opinion and liberal conditions. Doing so reveals an
ies have taught us a great deal about the nature of political
important dichotomy. In conflicted districts with more
representation, they have tended to study the impact of
liberal opinions, opinion is the better predictor of roll call
constituents’ concerns and their needs independently
behavior. In conflicted districts with more conservative
from one another. We advance our understanding of the
opinions, conditions are more predictive. We find evi-
nature of political representation by studying these fac-
dence that this pattern is in part explained by differences
tors jointly, which heretofore has not been done explicitly
in electoral dynamics across the two types of conflicted
or in considerable depth.
districts. More educated and affluent voters are more
Specifically, we analyze 21 high-salience roll call
likely to be represented by legislators whose party affili-
votes with a focus on districts where constituent opinion
ations match their constituents’ issue opinions. Less edu-
and objective conditions point legislators in different
cated voters are less likely to be represented by lawmakers
directions. We examine the U.S. House of Representatives
whose partisanship matches their constituents’ opinions.
and merge three types of data—roll call votes from the
The result is that lawmakers who represent more edu-
106th to 112th Congresses (2000–2012) identified by
cated districts are more likely to follow constituent opin-
Congressional Quarterly (CQ) as Key Votes, survey data
ion when making voting decisions, while representatives
from the 2000 and 2004 administrations of the National
hailing from less affluent districts are more likely to fol-
Annenberg Election Survey (NAES) and the 2006–2012
low objective economic and social indicators when mak-
administrations of the Cooperative Congressional ing roll call choices.
Election Study (CCES), and measures of congressional
Our findings have important implications for under-
district conditions, which are taken from the U.S. Census
standing the nature and landscape of political representation
and other official sources.
in contemporary America, the incentives of lawmakers, and
Our analysis demonstrates, first, that both constituent
the consequences of disparate voting behavior based on
opinion and objective conditions predict lawmaker political sophistication. We expand on each of these impli-
behavior when the two are not aligned, but constituent
cations in our conclusion.

Adler et al.
2003) or based on their own values or principles (Barker
and Carman 2012; Mansbridge 2003). In either case, the
The degree to which the needs and concerns of citizens
needs of the district do not much come into play. The other
are reflected in the actions of legislators is a central dem-
strand of the trustee perspective is more applicable to our
ocratic concern. Among the many activities of lawmakers
aims here. Namely, it contends that elected officials should
that we might use to gauge citizen representation, the roll
“do what’s right for the people in [the] district” (Barker
call vote holds special status. This is where, after all is
and Carman 2012; Mansbridge 2003, 516), irrespective
said and done, the legislator must unequivocally commit
perhaps of constituents’ expressed desires. This is similar
to supporting a direction for public policy. So, while we
to what Mansbridge (2003) terms “anticipatory” represen-
appreciate that representation takes a number of other
tation—identifying what constituents might use to reward
forms, our focus is the roll call vote.
or punish their representative in the next election (see also
Among the studies that focus on roll call voting, there
Arnold 1990). Some early empirical studies in this vein
are two theoretical orientations (Pitkin 1972). The first,
focused on whether...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT