This article was originally posted at Englin Consulting - A consulting firm that helps organizations, causes, and campaigns move people to action to impact policy and politics.
As far as state legislators are concerned, all voters are conservatives.
OK, we’re being hyperbolic. But only a little bit, according to a recent survey that should have all progressive change-makers headed for the planning table - and maybe the budget spreadsheet - to revisit strategy decisions.
David Broockmany and Christopher Skovronz surveyed every candidate for state legislative office in the U.S. in 2012 (about 10,000 people). They got 1,907 responses from a wide variety of districts, candidate types (incumbent, challenger, etc.) and split about equally between Republicans and Democrats. They asked about the candidates’ own positions and what they thought their voters’ positions were on same sex marriage and universal health care. The researchers then matched up the candidates with district-level polling data on those same two issues.
- Conservative politicians overestimate support for conservative policy views among their constituents by over 20 percentage points on average.
- 70% of liberal candidates underestimate support for liberal positions among their constituents.
- The democratic process - elections - does nothing to alter politicians’ misperceptions of the conservatism of their voters.
- In districts where supporters of same sex marriage and universal healthcare outnumber opponents by 2 to 1, liberal politicians appear to typically believe these policies enjoy only bare majority support while conservative politicians typically outright reject the notion that these policies command widespread support.
Yikes. So, now what?
At least these three things:
1) Even if you don’t work on state policy, this should be alarming.46 US Senators and half of current members of the House used to be state legislators. There’s no reason to believe state legislators don’t take their biases and issue positions with them when they’re promoted from the state house to the US Capitol. If you care about progressive federal policy, you should care that state legislators across the ideological perspective dramatically underestimate the progressivity of their constituents.
2) Safe assumption: it’s not just marriage equality and universal health care. Your progressive priority is suffering, too.The study doesn’t go further than to document state legislative candidates’ dramatic misperceptions of the opinions of their voters on these two progressive issues. The researchers chose those issues because, “(1) these issues are very highly salient in both national and state mass politics, (2) both national and state legislators are currently making high-stakes policy decisions on these issues that will affect tens of millions of Americans, and (3) these issues tap into two core ‘dimensions’ of contemporary American politics: degree of government economic redistribution and involvement in the case of universal healthcare, and social conservatism in the case of same-sex marriage.”We think it’s safe to hazard a guess that a number of other progressive priorities, from climate change to education to tax reform, could be described the same way, so they likely suffer from the same conservative bias amongst candidates for state office.
3) The overestimation of the conservatism of the electorate matters. Progressive campaigners should work to fix it. Here are some ideas to get you started.
If candidates think their voters are more conservative than they really are, it follows that candidates will take more conservative positions on the stump and in office. At minimum, it’s a safe bet that the misperception prevents some state elected officials from being leaders on progressive issues.
So: what will you and your organization do to fix it?
Just a few of the things we’d love to work with you to try:
- Do in-district, in-depth, issue-specific polling for public release and use in private meetings with state legislative candidates and incumbents.
- Pick a district represented by a wobbly ally (or a sometimes opponent) and go deep in that district to mobilize supporters of your policy position (even if not your organization) to make a call or send an email.
- Test a campaign aimed at people who are likely to support a target incumbent (Republicans in a safe Republican district, for example) to mobilize them to make their opinions known on your issue to their state legislator. Note that this is different than asking them to vote differently; that’s not the point. The point is to correct a misperception.
If you’re interested in more reading on the study, some good resources:
Shayna launched Englin Consulting, LLC with over a decade of experience identifying and mobilizing supporters for non-profits, causes, and political candidates.
From her roots in Colorado as an organizer for Colorado NARAL, to her role as Fundraising Practice Manager at Mindshare Interactive Campaigns (now Verilion), to her leadership as Program and Political Director at the Women’s Campaign Forum, Shayna has been on the cutting edge in producing innovative and effective plans, programs, and materials that yield results: dollars raised, votes won, and policy changed.
Shayna earned a Master in Public Policy degree from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and teaches graduate classes in strategy and communications at Georgetown University and at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management.