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Can Learning Constituency Opinion Affect How Legislators Vote? Results from a Field Experiment

June 2011

Daniel Butler, David Nickerson


This randomized field experiment analyzes what effect learning public opinion has on a legislator’s stance on an issue. A state-wide opinion survey (n = 10,690) was conducted in New Mexico on the Governor’s spending proposal during the special session in the summer of 2008. Through random selection half of New Mexico legislators were shown the results of their district, while the other half were not shown. Among legislators who learned their district’s opinion, there is a significant correlation between legislator’s vote and constituent opinion. The votes of legislators who did not learn the public opinion have virtually zero correlation to constituent opinion.

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Policy Implications

These results suggest that one of the major roadblocks to government accountability is simple ignorance. If legislators were more aware of public opinion, they would more often enact the will of the people. This suggests that more polling (specifically at a legislator’s district-level) on salient issues would increase the likelihood of policy concerning these issues.

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