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.

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