We like to think that politicians care about what their constituents want. If voters in a legislative district have certain views about, say, the legality of abortion, we assume that their representative’s decisions will be shaped, or at least influenced, by those views. To a large extent, democracy depends on this assumption: The beliefs of voters should be reflected, however imperfectly, in the leaders they elect.
But there is reason to question this assumption. It is easy to think of issues, climate change and gun control chief among them, where the consensus of public opinion has provoked little legislative action. How much do legislators really care about the views of their constituents?
Over the past two years, we conducted a study to find out. We provided state legislators in the United States with access to highly detailed public opinion survey data — more detailed than almost all available opinion polls — about their constituents’ attitudes on gun control, infrastructure spending, abortion and many other policy issues. Afterward, we gauged the willingness of representatives to look at the data as well as how the data affected their perceptions of their constituents’ opinions.