Does Constituent Contact Matter?

by John Sides on April 23, 2013 · 8 comments

in Legislative Politics


A Monkey Cage reader writes:

Prompted by the recent Internet passion over CISPA (Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act), many people are urging me to contact my Senators either by phone or email to express my opinions.  Does constituents contacting elected officials affect their voting behavior? A summary of the political science literature regarding constituents contacting their elected officials would be interesting and timely.

Sarah Binder and I chatted about this.  Neither of us could recall a specific study that looked at the question narrowly—that is, by addressing whether letters or some other measure of the volume of contact matters to legislators’ votes.  The big problem is a lack of data.   No one has them that we knew of (except members of Congress).  By contrast, there is a lot of new data on legislators’ communications with their constituents (see Justin Grimmer’s work), but not really the other way around.

If we had such data, would we find a relationship?  It is hard to know, and would be hard to establish any causal link between voter-initiated contact and legislators’ votes.  This doesn’t mean that such contact is unimportant.  Doug Arnold’s work suggests that legislators worry about “latent publics”—that is, groups of voters who might come to care about an issue. Letters, email campaigns, etc. could factor into legislators’ views about latent publics by signaling that their might be a broader group of constituents who would object if legislators voted a particular way.

{ 8 comments }

Eric L. April 23, 2013 at 9:11 am

For some discussion of this, see pp. 124-128 of Jacobs and Shapiro, _Politicians Don’t Pander_. They discuss the large amount of slack that MCs have on issues with respect to public opinion. The particular issue at hand was the Clinton health care reform effort.

Bradford Fitch April 23, 2013 at 9:32 am

Actually, there is research by the Congressional Management Foundation which does indicate that constituent correspondence is very influential. More on the research here:

http://www.congressfoundation.org/projects/communicating-with-congress/perceptions-of-citizen-advocacy-on-capitol-hill

j April 23, 2013 at 9:49 am

Check out Kris Miler’s book

http://www.cambridge.org/gb/knowledge/isbn/item5562921/?site_locale=en_GB

The publisher blurb does a good job of fleshing out her thesis:

“Legislators are shown to see only a few constituents in their district on a given policy, namely those who donate to their campaigns and contact the legislative office, and fail to see many other relevant constituents. Legislators are also subsequently more likely to act on behalf of the constituents they see, while important constituents not seen by legislators are rarely represented in the policymaking process.”

JC April 23, 2013 at 3:49 pm

I second this. Kris’s book provides great context to this topic.

DL April 23, 2013 at 10:15 am

Dan Bergen’s study, “Does Grassroots Lobbying Work? A Field Experiment Measuring the Effects of an e-Mail Lobbying Campaign on Legislative Behavior,” suggests that constituent contacts can have a significant effect on legislator voting behavior:
http://apr.sagepub.com/content/37/2/327.short

WW April 23, 2013 at 10:45 am

I haven’t been able to read great amounts of research on the subject, but I do have a little first hand experience.

I think a lot of constituent contact comes from the minority in the district/state on an issue. If the elected official has already announced a position, not a whole lot of people write in and say “hold firm! atta boy!” Instead, a significant amount of contact comes from people who want the representative to change or justify their position on an issue.

Secondly, there is a lot of “pre-canned” contact. Interest groups, or advocacy groups often pre-print postcards that are already filled out, or emails that can be copied and pasted. All people have to do is sign them, and mail those in. While every contact is important – it’s hard to give that kind of contact the same weight as a hand written note, or individual email.

Frequently, the “pre-canned” contact also comes in small batches, meaning we’d get 100 post cards, and then no more. Again, it’s hard to give as much weight to a one time delivery of post cards as it was to hand written notes.

Combine that with the intricacy of the scheduling of the house/senate calendars. A lot of mail seems to originate based on what the houses are considering, and once the vote occurred, most people would stop writing about that subject all together. I never came to a conclusion about whether or not this was a sign of an intelligent constituency that was taking advantage of a window where they had the most influence, or if it was a sign of partisan reflexes.

Another point we had to be careful of was “sold” names and addresses. One immigration group obtained a number of constituent’s names and addresses, and would write the office several times a week on “their behalf”. We finally contacted the constituents wondering why they’d written 30 letters in 40 days about the same subjects, and they indicated they hadn’t. Once you can identify these syndicates – you just begin to ignore them.

My last observation is that offices tracks who writes them and keeps a record of it. Some offices who have been there a long time have taken the effort to go back and re-log old letters they kept in archives. In other words, until recently, Sec. Kerry probably could have told you who wrote him about what in the early 90′s. This means, again, that there is a distinction between someone in the opposite party who writes you once a week to inform you of the poor job you are doing, and someone who has never written you before.

So a better question may be “what kind of constituent contact makes a difference”.

Anyhow – it’s hardly scientific, but I thought I’d share my experiences.

CU April 23, 2013 at 11:34 am

constituents who report that they have contacted an elected official about a policy concern are more likely to see their preferred policy supported in the roll call vote. this is circumstantial, but still points to an effect.

Federico Tiberti April 23, 2013 at 7:32 pm

If you are interested in checking whether any effect of this kind actually occurs, you should take a look to what will happen tomorrow in Argentina: a very controversial judicial reform promoted by President’s majority in both chambers is being treated (in an incredible short time) will be voted tomorrow. With present partisan distribution, it will succeed and become law. Over 130000 people have signed a petition against it, which will be delivered to what are supposed to be 12 swing voters, and public opinion is sharply divided. Anyway, nobody seems close to changing his mind.

Below, the online petition:

https://www.change.org/es-AR/peticiones/12-diputados-que-pueden-frenar-esta-reforma-judicial

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