Kevin Lewis

April 03, 2020

Correcting Bias in Perceptions of Public Opinion Among American Elected Officials: Results from Two Field Experiments
Joshua Kalla & Ethan Porter
British Journal of Political Science, forthcoming


While concerns about the public's receptivity to factual information are widespread, much less attention has been paid to the factual receptivity, or lack thereof, of elected officials. Recent survey research has made clear that US legislators and legislative staff systematically misperceive their constituents' opinions on salient public policies. This study reports the results from two field experiments designed to correct misperceptions of sitting US legislators. The legislators (n = 2,346) were invited to access a dashboard of constituent opinion generated using the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study. Despite extensive outreach efforts, only 11 per cent accessed the information in Study 1 and only 2.3 per cent did so in Study 2. More troubling for democratic norms, legislators who accessed constituent opinion data were no more accurate at perceiving their constituents' opinions. The findings underscore the challenges confronting efforts to improve the accuracy of elected officials' perceptions and suggest that elected officials may indeed resist factual information.

The direct election of senators and the emergence of the modern presidency
Thomas Gray, Jeffery Jenkins & Philip Potter
Political Science Research and Methods, forthcoming


Research on presidential power delineates between a modern era of relative autonomy and an earlier period of congressional dominance. What drove this change? Unlike prior arguments about presidential entrepreneurship and the rise of the United States as a global power, we attribute the emergence of the modern presidency partially to an institutional change - the adoption of direct election of senators that culminated in the 17th Amendment. With direct election, senators were selected by individual voters rather than state legislators. These senators answered to a new principal - the general public - that was (in the aggregate) less informed and less interested in foreign policy. As a result, senators had less incentive to constrain presidential foreign policy preferences. We find evidence for this shift in the relationship between the piecemeal adoption of direct election and senate votes to delegate foreign policy authority to the executive. The implication is that the direct election of senators played an underappreciated role in the emergence of the modern presidency.

Stability and Contingency in Federalism Preferences
John Dinan & Jac Heckelman
Public Administration Review, March/April 2020, Pages 234-243


This article analyzes Americans’ preferences for making policy at the national versus the subnational level. Relying on a Pew Research Center survey question posed in multiple recent years, we investigate the extent to which partisanship and ideology are related to support for decentralization. As expected, Republicans and conservatives are more supportive of decentralization, whereas Democrats and liberals are less supportive. However, Republicans and Democrats respond asymmetrically to changes in party control of the federal government. Republicans’ support for decentralization is relatively unaffected by changes in party control, whereas Democrats’ support for decentralization increases when Republicans control the federal government. These results indicate that federalism‐based appeals in American politics tap into stable views about allocation of policy authority on the part of a subset of the electorate and in ways that can influence public officials’ support for decentralization.

Presidential Party Affiliation and Electoral Cycles in the U.S. Economy: Evidence from Party Changes in Adjacent Terms
Joe Stone & David Jacobs
Journal of Macroeconomics, forthcoming


Unique evidence presented in this study challenges previous findings about presidential politics and business cycles. Prior studies find strong evidence for a Democratic economic growth advantage of about 1.8 percent per year over the course of a term but only weak evidence for a pre- election surge in growth for incumbent Presidents of either party. This study finds a much smaller Democratic advantage and strong evidence for a pre-election growth surge for Republican Presidents relative to Democratic Presidents. The novelty of these results is attributable to the use of repeated party-change reversals in adjacent terms for identification in place of binary changes in isolated terms separated by as much as a half-century in prior studies. We find a strongly partisan Federal Reserve effect on growth as well. Results are insensitive to an extensive battery of robustness checks.

When Do Politicians Grandstand? Measuring Message Politics in Committee Hearings
Ju Yeon Park
Journal of Politics, forthcoming


While congressional committee members sometimes hold hearings to collect and transmit specialized information to the floor, they also use hearings as venues to send political messages by framing an issue or a party to the public which I refer to as “grandstanding.” However, we lack clear understanding of when they strategically engage in grandstanding. I argue that when committee members have limited legislative power they resort to making grandstanding speeches in hearings to please their target audience. Using 12,820 House committee hearing transcripts from the 105th to 114th Congresses and employing a crowd-sourced supervised learning method, I measure a “grandstanding score” for each statement that committee members make. Findings suggest that grandstanding efforts are made more commonly among minority members under a unified government, and non-chair members of powerful committees, and in committees with jurisdiction over policies that the president wields primary power, such as foreign affairs and national security.

Policy and the structure of roll call voting in the US house
Scott de Marchi, Spencer Dorsey & Michael Ensley
Journal of Public Policy, forthcoming


Competition in the US Congress has been characterised along a single, left-right ideological dimension. We challenge this characterisation by showing that the content of legislation has far more predictive power than alternative measures, most notably legislators’ ideological positions derived from scaling roll call votes. Using a machine learning approach, we identify a topic model for final passage votes in the 111th through the 113th House of Representatives and conduct out-of-sample tests to evaluate the predictive power of bill topics relative to other measures. We find that bill topics and congressional committees are important for predicting roll call votes but that other variables, including member ideology, lack predictive power. These findings raise serious doubts about the claim that congressional politics can be boiled down to competition along a single left-right continuum and shed new light on the debate about levels of polarisation in Congress.

Policy Inventing and Borrowing among State Legislatures
Srinivas Parinandi
American Journal of Political Science, forthcoming


Although a long literature has analyzed how policies diffuse or spread across the American states, scant attention has been given to how states invent or create original policy instead of borrowing existing policy from one another. In this article, I use state legislative policymaking with respect to renewable portfolio standards to examine when legislatures invent original policy instead of borrowing existing policy. I use a novel data set that includes the state adoption of hundreds of policy provisions, including their combinations, and I employ logistic pooled event history analysis to identify the determinants of inventing and borrowing. I find that government ideology largely predicts inventing, whereas electoral vulnerability predicts borrowing. The results suggest that ideologues spearhead invention and further suggest that democratic accountability works chiefly through promoting borrowing rather than blunting inventing.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want: How Majority‐Party Agenda Setting and Ignored Alternatives Shape Public Attitudes
Laurel Harbridge‐Yong & Celia Paris
Legislative Studies Quarterly, forthcoming


Agenda setting is central to the study of legislatures and has profound implications for policy outcomes - yet little is known about how the public reacts to agenda setting and to majority‐party decisions to ignore alternative proposals. We hypothesize that voters will be less satisfied with policy decisions when they are made aware of ignored alternatives. Drawing on literature on procedural fairness and partisan identity, we offer competing predictions for whether all respondents or only minority‐party voters will oppose agenda setting and whether the strongest negative reaction will be elicited when bipartisan alternatives or minority‐party proposals are ignored. Through a series of experiments, we show that information about agenda setting can drive down public support for legislation and for Congress as a whole and reduce the perceived fairness of the legislative process. Importantly, these effects are not confined to cases where popular policy alternatives are ignored or where one’s own party loses out.

Political probity increases trust in government: Evidence from randomized survey experiments
Aaron Martin et al.
PLoS ONE, February 2020


Low levels of trust in government have potentially wide-ranging implications for governing stability, popular legitimacy, and political participation. Although there is a rich normative and empirical literature on the important consequences of eroding trust in democratic societies, the causes of political trust are less clear. In this article we estimate the effect that changing Americans’ views about the perceived honesty and integrity of political authorities (or “political probity”) has on their trust in government using randomized survey experiments. In one experiment on a convenience sample and a direct replication on a more representative sample, we find that a single Op-Ed article about political probity increased trust in government by an amount larger than the partisan gap between Democrats and Republicans. These results complement prior observational studies on trust in government by demonstrating that political probity plays an important causal role in shaping Americans’ judgments about the trustworthiness of their government and politicians.

High-status lobbyists are most likely to overrate their success
Benjamin Lyons, Amy Melissa McKay & Jason Reifler
Nature Human Behaviour, February 2020, Pages 153-159


Overconfidence helps individuals reach higher status within social groups by making them seem more competent regardless of objective ability, so this bias may be especially prevalent among status-oriented members of elite communities. Based on this premise, we explore whether lobbyists in the USA misperceive their success. Using models that (1) control for legislative outcome when predicting self-assessed policy success and (2) compare self-assessed policy success on specific proposals against the average success reported by all lobbyists working on the same side of an issue, we identify systematic tendencies to overrate achievements. Lobbyists with higher incomes, who reside in Washington, DC, USA, have congressional experience and who engage in a broader range of activities are more likely to overrate their success. Public interest group lobbyists tend to underestimate success. We conclude that political elites are subject to the same biases as others when evaluating their performance, and these biases may be largely status-driven.

Karthik Reddy, Moritz Schularick & Vasiliki Skreta
International Economic Review, forthcoming


Legal provisions that protect elected politicians from prosecution have been common throughout history and still exist in most democracies. We provide the first systematic measurement of immunity and study, theoretically and empirically, its relation to corruption. Theory predicts that immunity is a double‐edged sword. To test whether immunity is a vice or a virtue, we quantify immunity enjoyed by heads of government, ministers, and legislators in 90 countries. Controlling for standard determinants of corruption, we find that stronger immunity is associated with greater corruption. Instrumental variable estimations using immunity at the first democratic constitution suggest the effect could be causal.

Why Do People Trust Their State Government?
Jennifer Wolak
State Politics & Policy Quarterly, forthcoming


Are the origins of trust in state government different from the reasons why people trust the national government? I argue that trust in state government has distinctive origins, tied to differences in how states operate within a federal system of government. Leveraging variations in the character of the states, I consider whether trust in state government is a function of its proximity to citizens, people’s relative preferences for smaller government, and the homogeneity of state electorates. Using responses to the 2017 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, I show feelings of trust in state government follow not only from state political conditions and economic performance but also from the distinctive character of the states. These findings challenge prior accounts that argue that diffuse trust in state government reflects only how people feel about the national government, and highlight how large states and small states face different challenges in cultivating trust in state government.

Oil and gas companies invest in legislators that vote against the environment
Matthew Goldberg et al.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 10 March 2020, Pages 5111-5112


Do campaign contributions from oil and gas companies influence legislators to vote against the environment, or do these companies invest in legislators that have a proven antienvironmental voting record? Using 28 y of campaign contribution data, we find that evidence consistently supports the investment hypothesis: The more a given member of Congress votes against environmental policies, the more contributions they receive from oil and gas companies supporting their reelection.

Whistle While You Work? The Relational Determinants of Reporting Wrongdoing
Patrick Bergemann & Brandy Aven
University of Chicago Working Paper, January 2020


Although much of the misconduct that occurs within organizations is detected by other employees, many of those witnesses do not “blow the whistle” on their colleagues. Their reluctance may be due in part to the relationships in which employees are embedded within their organizations. In this paper, we theorize that social factors can interact to facilitate or inhibit whistleblowing within organizations. We contend that employees respond differently when the wrongdoing occurs either inside or outside of their workgroups, and that this distinction is moderated by the internal cohesion of those workgroups. When internal cohesion is high, individuals are less likely to report wrongdoing conducted by other members of the workgroup; however, high cohesion also promotes willingness to report wrongdoing observed outside the workgroup. Using unique data on observed and hypothetical whistleblowing by 33,755 US federal employees in 24 departments and agencies, we provide support for our arguments and show how competing explanations of whistleblowing can be integrated by situating them in particular social contexts. Together, these results reveal trade-offs in the detection of misconduct and help explain why wrongdoing in organizations may be so difficult to eradicate.



from the


A weekly newsletter with free essays from past issues of National Affairs and The Public Interest that shed light on the week's pressing issues.


to your National Affairs subscriber account.

Already a subscriber? Activate your account.


Unlimited access to intelligent essays on the nation’s affairs.

Subscribe to National Affairs.