Answer, not so much, according to a trio of researchers including CU Boulder political scientist
During a campaign stop in Iowa in 2016, now-President Donald Trump famously told his supporters: "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose voters."
Though the 2016 presidential election is behind us, Trump’s claim illustrates a major question that persists in modern-day politics: whether or not voters are willing to hold their elected representatives accountable for their actions.
New research from a trio of researchers, including one from the University of Colorado Boulder, sheds some light on this pertinent issue. The paper, titled “A God of Vengeance and of Reward? Voters and Accountability,” was published in Legislative Studies Quarterly in November 2018 and found that voters are more likely to reward their representatives than punish them for their actions.
“The question of whether voters hold elected officials accountable is right at the heart of our democracy,” said John Griffin, a CU Boulder associate professor of political science. “There had been a number of studies that provided some evidence on that question, but I wanted to examine it in a way that I thought would be more convincing.”
More specifically, the researchers sought to understand how voters would react when they learned how closely their own policy preferences aligned with their elected leaders’ actual voting decisions on real issues.
Griffin partnered with Brian Newman, a professor of political science at Pepperdine University, and David Nickerson, an associate professor of political science and public policy at Temple University.
The question of accountability dates back to our nation’s founding and is built into the design of the Constitution. Though the founding fathers attempted to address this issue more than 200 years ago, it remains top of mind in today’s political climate.
“Starting with the founders, many have thought that citizens ought to reward and punish their elected representatives for their actions in office,” Newman said. “Recently, many are wondering whether party polarization is so powerful that Republicans will support and Democrats will oppose Republican officials no matter what they do.”
Using a short survey, researchers asked a random sample of more than 2,300 people how they felt about five political issues ranging from abortion to unemployment benefits. The issues were actually bills that members of the U.S. House of Representatives had already voted on, but the researchers did not tell the survey participants that.
If you like what your member of Congress does, you’re more likely to reward them. But if you dislike what your member does, we didn’t find a lot of evidence of punishment of them.”
The researchers carefully selected the five political issues based on certain factors—how meaningful the issue would be to most voters, whether or not it was a divisive issue for one or both political parties (i.e., not a party-line vote), the number of abstentions on the vote and how balanced the five issues would be when taken together.
After gleaning how the survey respondents felt about the issues, the researchers then used the participants’ ZIP codes to look up how their representative had actually voted on each matter. They created a so-called “congruence score” to indicate how closely the participants’ feelings aligned with their representatives’ votes.
The researchers shared this congruence score, as well as the name and party affiliation of the voter’s representative, with a random half of the survey respondents. They informed the other random half of respondents of their representative’s name and party affiliation only.
After that, the researchers asked the survey participants how they felt about their representative’s job performance, whether they intended to vote for the representative in the future and how likely they were to participate in the upcoming election at all.
The findings suggest that informing voters of how closely their views align with their representatives’ voting decisions changes how they feel about their representative and might also affect their likelihood of voting in upcoming elections.
“The main finding was largely corroborative of prior studies: When we told voters how well their policy preferences lined up with their member of Congress, those people with high congruency tended to like their member of Congress more and say they would be more likely to vote for them in the next election compared to voters who didn't get any information about congruency,” Griffin said.
One surprising finding is that voters are more inclined to reward their representative (by way of voting for them in an upcoming election) than they are to punish them.
Starting with the founders, many have thought that citizens ought to reward and punish their elected representatives for their actions in office. Recently, many are wondering whether party polarization is so powerful that Republicans will support and Democrats will oppose Republican officials no matter what they do.”
“If you like what your member of Congress does, you’re more likely to reward them,” Griffin added. “But if you dislike what your member does, we didn’t find a lot of evidence of punishment of them.”
The study also provides some evidence for just how much congruency voters expect from their representatives—in other words, what percentage of votes need to align in order for voters to be happy with their representative?
“What our study suggested is that something north of 50 percent is sufficient in order to gain someone’s approval,” Griffin said. “It doesn’t have to get anywhere close to full agreement.”
The data also showed that voters who had high congruency and, to some extent, low congruency with their representative were more likely to participate in the next election at all—those who agreed with their representative might turn out to vote to show their support, while those who disagreed with their representative might participate in the election to vote for a challenger.
Griffin pointed out that this finding deserves further exploration, as there weren’t many survey participants who had extremely low levels of agreement with their representative. Future studies could look at heterogeneous districts, where it would be impossible for representatives to align their votes with all of their constituents all the time.
The research reinforces the fact that it's beneficial for representatives to make sure their votes align with the views of their constituents—that they should literally try to represent voters in their district.
And since voters appear to reward their representatives more than they punish them, the findings could provide an explanation as to why so many political campaigns rely on personal attacks, rather than pointing out policy incongruencies to voters, Griffin said.
During a time when misinformation and “fake news” are popular discussion topics, the findings also highlight the importance of voters receiving accurate information about their elected officials, Newman said.
One big-picture takeaway from the study? Every now and then, it’s important to take a step back and question our long-held beliefs or ideas. While voters might assume that our democracy is working as intended, it’s the role of social scientists to probe deeper and provide a more nuanced understanding of things we think we already know, Griffin said.
“What academics sometimes do is take intuitions or conclusions that we all think are true and help shed light on why they’re true, the mechanisms by which those phenomena happen or to establish the boundaries of them—when do they happen and when don’t they happen?” Griffin said.