State Policy Outcomes and State Legislative Approval

AuthorJennifer Wolak,Stefani Langehennig,Joseph Zamadics
Published date01 December 2019
Date01 December 2019
Subject MatterArticles
823284PRQXXX10.1177/1065912918823284Political Research QuarterlyLangehennig et al.
Political Research Quarterly
2019, Vol. 72(4) 929 –943
State Policy Outcomes and
© 2019 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
State Legislative Approval
DOI: 10.1177/1065912918823284
Stefani Langehennig1, Joseph Zamadics1, and Jennifer Wolak1
Does the public’s approval of their state legislature reflect their satisfaction with the outputs of state government?
Using survey responses from the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, we consider the roots of public
approval of state legislatures. We find that people are more likely to voice approval of their state legislature when it
produces policy outcomes that correspond with their interests. Liberals view their state legislature more positively
when policy outputs are liberal, while conservatives evaluate their state legislature more favorably when policy
outcomes are conservative. These effects are the most pronounced among those who are the most knowledgeable
about state politics. Using panel data from 2012 to 2014, we also show that changes in state policy liberalism are
associated with changes in state legislative approval. Even though we have reasons to be pessimistic about the quality
of citizens’ assessments of state government, our results demonstrate that citizens evaluate their state legislatures
based on the policy outcomes they provide.
state legislative approval, state politics, public opinion
In a representative democracy, we delegate decisions to
weak evidence that state legislators are punished or
elected officials to act on our behalf. We hope that politi-
rewarded at the polls for their ideological congruence
cians will work to produce policies that reflect our prefer-
with their districts (Hogan 2008; Rogers 2017). We con-
ences, but we risk receiving outcomes that are not
sider the public’s responsiveness to state policy out-
well-aligned with our political desires. For scholars, the
comes, exploring whether people evaluate state
congruence between the choices made by political elites
legislatures based on the ideological tenor of the policy
and the preferences of the public inform the performance
outcomes they provide.
of representative democracy (e.g., Erikson, MacKuen,
Are people more likely to approve of their state legis-
and Stimson 2002; Erikson, Wright, and McIver 1993).
lature when it delivers outcomes that come closer to their
Yet even as scholars are interested in the character of
ideological preferences? Or are state policy outcomes
policy representation afforded by officeholders, does the
unimportant to how people evaluate the performance of
same hold true for citizens?
their state legislature? Using responses from the
Although we have often assumed that policy respon-
Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), we
siveness is important to citizens, questions remain about
explore whether people report higher approval of their
whether people evaluate governmental institutions based
state legislatures when their preferences are better
on the policy outcomes that they provide. When asked
aligned with the policy outcomes of state government.
about their expectations of officeholders, people say they
We find that increasing levels of state policy liberalism
want politicians to listen to their concerns and vote in line
are associated with greater state legislative approval
with the concerns of constituents (Grill 2007; Hibbing
among liberals and lower levels of approval among con-
and Theiss-Morse 2002). At the national level, this seems
servatives. We also find that those with greater knowl-
to be confirmed. We see that members of Congress who
edge of state politics are more responsive to the
vote in ways congruent with their constituents benefit at
ideological outcomes of state government than those
the ballot box (Ansolabehere and Jones 2010). As the dis-
tance between policy outcomes and the liberalism of the
1University of Colorado, Boulder, USA
public grows, congressional approval falls (Ramirez
2013). At the state level, however, it is less evident that
Corresponding Author:
Jennifer Wolak, Department of Political Science, University of
policy outcomes matter for how people assess state
Colorado, 333 UCB, Boulder, CO 80309-0333, USA.
elected officials. At the dyadic level, scholars find only

Political Research Quarterly 72(4)
with lower levels of political knowledge. Using the
their statehouse when they feel that state officeholders are
2012–2014 CCES panel survey, we show that changes in
responsive to their concerns (Patterson, Hedlund, and
state policy liberalism are associated with changes in
Boynton 1975; Patterson, Ripley, and Quinlan 1992). In
state legislative approval over time.
considering the predictors of state legislative ratings,
Investigating the consequences of state policy out-
approval follows in part from the performance of state
comes for public approval is important for understanding
government. When economic optimism is high, unem-
the character of representative democracy in the states.
ployment rates are low, and the fiscal health of the state is
Over time, states have taken an increasingly active role in
strong, people report higher levels of trust and approval
policymaking, and hold policy authority in many domains
of their state legislature (Flavin 2013; Hamman 2006;
relevant to citizens’ lives—from education to environ-
Kelleher and Wolak 2007; Richardson, Konisky, and
mental issues to infrastructure and transportation. The
Milyo 2012).
decision to pass one policy versus another has important
People’s evaluations of their state legislature also
consequences—and as such, it is valuable to know if peo-
reflect the character of policy processes in the state. At
ple’s evaluations of the performance of their state legisla-
the national level, mistrust of Congress is thought to be
tures are responsive to those policy choices.
rooted in fears that legislators are out of touch with the
This research also informs our understanding of the
demands of the public, focused on partisan squabbles and
connections between public evaluations and policy out-
interest group demands rather than the concerns of the
comes in the states. Scholars have affirmed that public
electorate (Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 1995, 2002). As
preferences inform the policy choices made by state
state legislatures increasingly resemble Congress in terms
elected officials (Caughey and Warshaw 2018; Erikson,
of their legislative professionalism, with longer sessions
Wright, and McIver 1993). Yet this connection is not a
and larger staffs, their approval falls. People offer warmer
perfect one, as the relationship between policy prefer-
evaluations of citizen legislatures than professionalized
ences and political outcomes varies across states and over
ones (Kelleher and Wolak 2007; Richardson, Konisky,
time (Caughey and Warshaw 2018; Lax and Phillips
and Milyo 2012; Squire 1993).
2012; Pacheco 2013; Wright and Winburn 2002). In con-
People also lean on their partisanship when asked to
sidering this heterogeneity in policy responsiveness, it
offer their appraisals of their state legislature. People
seems that policy representation works differently at the
offer warmer ratings of their state legislature when the
state level than at the national level (Erikson, Wright, and
institution is controlled by members of their own party,
McIver 1993). Although elections are important to help-
and provide more negative assessments of state legisla-
ing citizens obtain congruent policy outcomes from
tures controlled by members of the rival party (Banda and
national institutions (Erikson, MacKuen, and Stimson
Kirkland 2018; Flavin 2013; Richardson, Konisky, and
2002), they seem less important to encouraging policy
Milyo 2012).1
responsiveness in the states (Caughey and Warshaw
2018). State electoral turnover is not necessarily respon-
State Policy Outcomes and
sive to the policy choices made by state legislators
Constituent Response
(Hogan 2008; Rogers 2017).
Given these reservations about the strength of the tie
To what extent do people consider state policy outcomes
between the will of the state electorates and the outputs of
when considering their feelings about their state legisla-
state government, it is important to consider whether peo-
ture? There are reasons to be pessimistic that citizens are
ple evaluate state legislatures based on the policy out-
responsive to the ideological tenor of state policy out-
comes of the states. In finding that people are responsive
comes. Voters are often uninformed about matters of state
to the ideological tenor of state policy outcomes, our
politics, where nearly half of Americans are unable to
results suggest that people are better able to hold state
name any branch of state government and even fewer can
legislatures responsible for their policy outputs than has
name their state legislators (Lyons, Jaeger, and Wolak
been previously believed. Even in a low-information
2013; Songer 1984). Media coverage of state politics is
domain like state politics where the dyadic ties between
often low, reflecting the dwindling presence of reporters ...

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