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date: 25 March 2017

Public Opinion and Public Policy

Summary and Keywords

The link between the public opinion and public policy is fundamental to political representation. The current empirical literature tests a general model in which policy is considered to be a function of public preferences. The mechanics by which preferences are converted to policy are considered along with extensions of the basic model - extensions through which the magnitude of opinion representation varies systematically acorss issues and political institutions. Thus, public opinion is an independent variable - an important driver of public policy change. With the consideration of 12/1 opinion as a dependent variable, specifically, its responsiveness to policy change - the ongoing existence of both policy representation and public responsiveness is critical to the functioning of representative democracy.

Keywords: democracy, elections, representation, congruence, responsiveness, issues, political institutions, electoral systems, government institutions, equality


The representation of public opinion in public policy is of obvious importance in representative democracies. Not surprisingly, then, there is a considerable body of research addressing the connection between the public and the government. This work is broad and varied. Some research focuses on “descriptive representation”—whether the partisan and demographic characteristics of elected politicians match the characteristics of the electorate itself. Other studies examine the positions of policymakers, observed, for instance, through the roll call voting behavior of politicians. Still other research focuses on policy more directly, concentrating on legislative (and budgetary) outcomes.

Descriptive traits, roll call voting behavior, and policy outcomes capture rather different aspects of representation, to be sure, but each can be useful in gauging the nature and quality of democratic responsiveness. This article accordingly reviews the literature on these and other representative behaviors and outputs. The mechanics by which preferences are converted to policy are considered, along with extensions of the basic model—extensions through which the magnitude of opinion representation varies systematically across issues and political institutions. For most of the article, then, public opinion is an independent variable—an important driver of public policy change. In a concluding section, however, we reconsider opinion as a dependent variable; specifically, we discuss its responsiveness to policy change. The ongoing existence of both policy representation and public responsiveness to policy, we argue, is critical to the functioning of representative democracy.

Opinion Representation in Theory and Practice

A fundamental principle of democratic government is that policy will be a function of opinion (see, e.g., Pitkin, 1967; Dahl, 1971). We can express this expectation formally, as follows:


where P designates policy and O opinion. This is not meant to be a complete model of policy of course, as we know that many other things also matter (Jacobs & Shapiro, 2000). The equation is used solely to characterize the general relationship between opinion and policy. And to be absolutely clear, we expect a positive relationship between opinion and policy—when the public wants a lot of policy, for example, they should get a lot of policy. Whether and the extent to which this is true is a critical indicator of representative governance. Such “responsiveness” of policy to opinion does not mean that the two actually match, which is more difficult to identify owing to measurement limitations. A good amount of research examines the “congruence” between preferences and policy change, but few studies considers whether the public gets what it wants, as we will see (also see Wessels, n.d.).

Representation in Positions

A substantial body of research examines the relationship between the positions held by the public and elected officials. Much of this scholarship compares results of public opinion surveys with results of surveys of politicians. Other research compares the results of public opinion surveys with the platforms or “manifestos” of political parties. Yet other studies consider actual roll call votes, particularly in systems with single member districts, where legislators represent geographic areas.

Dyadic Representation

Early empirical work on the opinion–policy link was sparked in large part by Miller and Stokes’ (1963) “Constituency Influence in Congress.” These authors brought together data on public preferences by constituency, and both surveys and roll call voting behavior of US Congressmen on social welfare, foreign affairs, and civil rights. Correlations between constituency preferences and members of Congress’s behavior suggested that the latter was guided in part by constituency opinion. The finding was striking at the time, empirically demonstrating a mode of representation quite different from the party-centered work that had preceded it.

This seminal study spawned a vast literature seeking to establish links between the voting behavior of representatives and some combination of constituency opinion, constituency aggregate demographics, and representatives’ own demographic traits and party affiliations. The research is concentrated in the United States, but has been extended to other countries with legislative districts (e.g., Converse & Pierce, 1986).1

Referred to as studies of dyadic representation (Weissberg, 1978), the literature on roll call voting asserts that representation is to be found in the relationship between individual constituencies and individual representatives. A good amount of work bears out significant connections in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate (e.g., Wright & Berkman, 1986). Recognizing important limitations in previous research relying on correlations, Bafumi and Herron (2010) attempt to directly match the ideal points of constituencies and representatives in an analysis of Congressional roll calls.

Collective Representation

In countries without geographic constituencies, as in many of those that allocate legislative seats using proportional representation, scholars have examined “collective representation”—the match between public opinion and the positions of institutions, such as legislatures or executives. The first work of this type actually focused on the United States, where Weissberg (1978) proposed collective Congressional representation as an alternative to dyadic representation. The relevance of collective representation even in a system that facilitates constituency-level representation is important: as Weissberg noted, concordance between individual legislators’ actions and constituency preferences is a helpful but not sufficient condition for policy representation; indeed, most individual representatives could vote against the majority opinion in their district and, so long as the various district preferences were reflected in the votes of other districts’ representatives, policy outcomes could still be representative of the (national) majority preference.

That said, a good amount of work since has focused on other countries. Building on a decade’s work by a large number of scholars, Miller et al. (1999) examine various mass–elite linkages, including the representation of public opinion. Powell (2000) assesses the match between the public’s ideological dispositions and those of governments, focusing especially on the effects of electoral systems. Budge et al. (2012) and Dalton, Farrell, and McAllister (2011) measure the positions of the public, political parties, and governments and assess their relationships. While scholars have typically examined collective representation across space, a number of recent articles study dynamics and focus explicitly on the position of the executive (e.g., Hobolt & Klemmensen, 2005).

Representation in Policy

Research on representation in positions tells us something about the representation of opinion, but tells us less about representation in actual policy. While positions and policies are related, after all, they are not the same things, and there is a growing body of work focused directly on policy. Scholarship in this area has tended to take one of four approaches: correspondence, consistency, covariation, and dynamic representation. These approaches are differentiated to a large extent by data availability, though, as we shall see, each has its advantages.

Policy Correspondence

The policy correspondence approach to the study of representation is similar to most of the research on policy positions. Scholars are interested in the correlation between expressed public preferences and policy across geographic areas, such as states or countries. The research asks: To what extent do levels of policy vary across areas alongside public preferences for policy? Erikson, Wright, and McIver’s (1993) Statehouse Democracy stands out as the best-known example of this kind of research. These authors examine the relationship between estimated state ideology scores and a measure of state policy liberalism; results show quite a strong relationship between the two.

The methodological approach is a powerful one, and even allows analysis of explicit opinion–policy congruence in those areas where they have measures of preferences that can be matched with policy decisions (Lax & Phillips, 2012). Its use outside the United States has been limited, though scholars have begun to assess the relationship across countries (e.g., Brooks & Manza, 2007). There clearly is much more work to be done here.

Policy Consistency

We draw the policy “consistency” designation from Monroe (1998), whose work on the United States provides an archetypal example of this line of analysis. This research asks: To what extent is policy change consistent with a proximate public preference for policy change? The approach involves identifying a single survey question asking about policy change, and examining the relationship between the proportion of respondents favoring that change and the existence of proximate changes in policy. “Consistency,” then, refers to the match between public preferences for change and actual policy change. Across over 500 cases from 1981 to 1993, for instance, Monroe finds a consistency score of 55%.

Consistency scores can be estimated for separate policy domains or different time periods. Indeed, this is where consistency scores are most interesting—they can indicate those domains in which opinion representation is particularly good (or bad). What consistency scores cannot do is establish a clear causal connection between public opinion and policy change. As Monroe (1998, p. 12) himself notes, the best this kind of analysis can do is to establish the coincidence of a public preference for change and actual policy change. A demonstration that preferences lead policy requires an analysis of data over time—data that can show, at least, that the public preference for change precedes the policy change.

The principal advantages of the consistency approach relate to the fact that it requires relatively little data—indeed, each case requires just one survey result, and the capacity to assess whether there was a proximate change in policy in that domain. As a consequence, the approach can easily include a wide range of policy issues. Where overall policy responsiveness is concerned, the inclusion of as many policy domains as possible is critical. Polling questions deal with issues of some level of public salience, so estimated overall responsiveness will be based on a rather restricted set of policy domains. Moreover, because policy responsiveness is likely greatest for salient issues—as we shall discuss further below—an estimate of overall policy responsiveness will almost necessarily be biased upwards, relying as it does on only those salient issues about which pollsters ask questions (see Burstein, 2003). The consistency approach, by requiring just a single question, can encompass a broader spectrum of policy issues than the more data-intensive covariation or dynamic representation approaches described below.

Relatively light data requirements also mean that the consistency approach has been quite easily exported outside the United States to countries where comparatively less opinion data are available (e.g., Brooks, 1987). These studies compare preferences for policy change at a single point in time with actual policy change in a subsequent period—usually the next 12 months—and in so doing add much to our understanding of the opinion–policy link across countries. The ongoing interaction between opinion and policy is however more appropriately captured by other approaches, as we shall see.

Policy Covariation

Policy covariation studies involve a slightly more data-intensive approach to the link between opinion and policy. While consistency studies measure preference for policy change at a single point in time, covariation studies rely on cases in which the same policy question was asked at two different points in time. Changes in the distribution of responses over that period are compared with proximate policy change. Measures of policy also tend to be more comprehensive in this approach. Policy is typically examined both before and after the period of opinion change, so it is clearer when opinion precedes policy, or vice versa. The central question, then, is: To what extent do changes in policy follow related changes in public preferences for policy?

Studies of policy covariation go further than consistency studies in examining both opinion and policy over time, and are thus better-equipped to examine the causal order of opinion and policy change. The best-known and most comprehensive study of policy covariation is Page and Shapiro’s (1983) study of over 300 federal U.S. policy issues from the mid-1930s to the late 1970s. These authors compare measures of covariation across domains and institutions, similar to Monroe, but with the additional advantage of being able to ascertain whether policy change followed or preceded opinion change. Indeed, a critical insight offered by this approach is that policy change often precedes measured opinion change.

The covariation approach has been used outside the United States as well (e.g., Bélanger & Pétry, 2005). The approach has much to recommend it: it is not so data-intensive as to be difficult to apply outside the United States, but at the same time it gathers enough information to get a general sense for the direction of causality between opinion and policy. Still, as with consistency, the limited period over which preferences and policies are measured makes it difficult to ascertain which came first. Preferences can change at a particular point in time because of previous policy changes, for instance. This ongoing interaction over time is missed by the covariation approach, but can be captured in the dynamic representation approach.

Dynamic Representation

Where regular, frequent readings of opinion and policy are available, it is possible to analyze the time–serial relationship(s) between them—that is, with a sufficient number of cases, we can statistically assess the effect of opinion on policy over time. The main research question is: Does public opinion reliably influence policy change? Given the need for reasonably long time series, there is a surprisingly long history of research in the area, particularly in the United States.

Early studies of dynamic representation preceded the development of the time-series econometrics which has come to characterize the field. In The Attentive Public, Devine’s (1970) analysis includes plots of (survey-based) mean policy support measures for different publics, alongside appropriations in those domains; Weissberg (1978) plots opinion measures alongside spending measures for eleven different U.S. policy domains. In each case, over-time analysis consists mainly of visual interpretations of graphs. Nevertheless, these authors’ broader longitudinal outlook makes their work the clear precursor to more recent research on dynamic representation.

The term “dynamic representation” is drawn from Stimson et al.’s (1995) article of the same title, a critical and representative example of what these analyses have come to look like. The article posits a model in which policy is a function of public preferences, either directly through politicians’ reactions to shifts in opinion, or indirectly through elections that result in shifts in the partisan composition of the legislature. The authors then examine relationships between a survey-based measure of “opinion liberalism” and policy voting measures for the president, House, Senate, and Supreme Court. There is strong evidence that policymakers respond to changes in public opinion.

Wlezien (1995) developed a “thermostatic” model of the (dynamic) reciprocal links between preferences and government spending—that is, a model which examined both opinion representation over time and public responsiveness to policy change. Dynamic models such as these are likely best-equipped for investigating the causal relationships between opinion and policy. There is a growing body of such work, including: analyses of defense spending by Eichenberg and Stoll (2003); analysis of immigration policy by Jennings (2009); work looking across a range of policy domains by Erikson, MacKuen, and Stimson (2002) and by Soroka and Wlezien (2010), and research across various countries by Wlezien and Soroka (2012).

The drawback to dynamic models is they require a good deal of data, and to date this is available across many policy domains in a very limited number of countries: the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Work on dynamic representation has thus been concentrated in polling-rich Anglo-American democracies, and mainly to salient policy domains. What the approach lacks in generalizability, however, it makes up for in the detail with which it can analyze opinion–policy relationships. This, we hope, will become clear in the sections that follow.

The Mechanics of Representation

Representation can occur in two familiar ways. The first way is indirect, through elections, where the public selects like-minded politicians who then deliver what it wants in policy. This is the traditional pathway to representation and is deeply rooted in the literature on responsible parties (Adams, 2001). In effect, the public chooses among alternative policy visions and then the winning parties put their programs into place after the election. The second way to representation is direct, where sitting politicians literally respond to what the public wants. This pathway reflects an active political class, one that endeavors to stay closely attuned to the ebb and flow of public opinion and adjust policy accordingly. The two ways to representation actually are related. That is, the first way implies the second, at least assuming incumbent politicians are interested in remaining in office or else motivated to represent our preferences for other reasons. This is how we think of representative democracy, how we think it should work, i.e., we expect responsiveness. Responsiveness is dynamic—responsive politicians follow preferences as they change. Policy change is the result.

We can formally express these expectations by revising our equation 1 for policy (P) as follows:


where O still is opinion and I is introduced to represent partisan control of government. Here policy is conceived to be directly responsive to opinion and also indirectly responsive, through changes in partisan composition owing to elections. Of course, the indirect linkage presupposes a connection between public opinion and party control of government:


These models apply across both space and time. We can characterize the relationships between opinion and governments and policy across countries or, say, provinces or states within a country. There are relatively few studies across countries, as good comparative data are hard to come by, though scholarly explorations are underway. There is more research on the U.S. states, as we have seen, and Erikson et al.’s (1993) classic examination reveals both connections: general policy differences across states reflect the partisan composition of government and opinion, and the partisan composition reflects opinion.

We also can characterize relationships over time, as preferences change, following the study of dynamic representation. This sort of analysis allows us to more explicitly assess policy “responsiveness.” Erikson et al. (2002) do just this, focusing on the number of major pieces of legislation in the United States. They show that policy change nicely follows opinion over time independently of party control. Wlezien (2004) and Soroka and Wlezien (2010) show the same focusing on budgetary policy. This does not mean that politicians actually respond to changing public preferences, for it may be that they and the public both respond to something else, e.g., the perceived “need” for spending. All we can say for sure is that the research captures policy responsiveness in a statistical sense—whether and the extent to which public preferences directly influence policy change, other things being equal.

Of course, policy responsiveness is an institutional outcome. In parliamentary systems, this is fairly straightforward—the government can change policy directly, assuming that it does not face a realistic threat of a vote of (no) confidence. In presidential systems, agreement across institutions usually is required, as in the United States. Presidential responsiveness to public preferences is conceptually quite simple: The president represents a national constituency and is expected to follow national preferences. Congressional responsiveness is more complex, even putting aside bicameralism, as members of the legislature represent districts. Although preferences may differ across constituencies, there is reason to suppose that preferences in different constituencies move together over time, just as movement of opinion across states and various demographic subcategories of the American public (Page & Shapiro, 1992) is largely parallel. To the extent that they are responsive to public preferences, then, both the president and Congress should move in tandem, and predictable policy change is the logical consequence, even in the presence of divided government. Here we have a good amount of evidence, as we have seen.

How exactly do politicians know what public preferences are? Elections likely provide a good deal of information, but direct representation between elections requires something further. Politicians may learn about preferences through interactions with constituents; they may just have a good intuition for public preferences (Fenno, 1978). Polls likely also play a critical role. We know that policymakers’ use and interpretation of polls can vary (e.g., Kingdon, 1995); at the same time, particularly given developments in polling technology, policymakers have relatively easy access to public opinion on policy matters and there is considerable evidence of the importance of polls, both public and private, in policymaking (e.g., Geer, 1996). This work is critical: it shows one means by which politicians learn about public preferences. Of course, politicians have other, more direct sources of information as well.2

Issues and Representation

Representation does not occur in all policy domains in all countries. The characteristics of domains appear to matter, for instance. Representation is likely to reflect the political importance (or “salience”) of issue domains, if only due to the possible electoral consequences. Let us briefly trace the logic.

Issue Salience

In its simplest sense, a salient issue is politically important to the public. People care about the issue and have meaningful opinions that structure party support and candidate evaluation. Candidates are likely to take positions on the issue and it is likely to form the subject of political debate. People are more likely to pay attention to politicians’ behavior on an important issue, as reflected in news media reporting or as communicated in other ways. Politicians, meanwhile, are likely to pay attention to public opinion on the issue—it is in their self-interest to do so, after all. There are many different and clear expressions of this conception of importance. In issue domains that are not important, conversely, people are not likely to pay attention to politicians’ behavior, and politicians are by implication expected to pay less attention to public opinion in these areas. This reflects a now classic perspective (see, e.g., Geer, 1996).3

This not only implies variation in representation across, it implies variation in responsiveness within domains over time, as salience changes. When an issue is not very salient to the public, politicians are expected to be less responsive. As salience increases, however, the relationship should increase. That is, to the extent that salience varies over time, the relationship between opinion and policy itself may vary. Though the expectation is clear, there is little research on the subject. We simply do not know whether representation varies much over time. Indeed, we still do not know much about the variation in issue importance (see Wlezien, 2005).4

Specific Versus Global Representation

Public preferences in the different policy domains are not entirely unique—they tend to move together over time. This patterned movement in preferences is well documented in the United States (Erikson et al., 2002; Wlezien, 1995) but is also evident elsewhere, in the United Kingdom and Canada (Soroka & Wlezien, 2010). The pattern has led some scholars to conclude that the public does not have preferences for policy in different areas, but rather a single, very general preference for government activity (e.g., Stimson, MacKuen, & Erikson, 1995). From this perspective, measured preferences in various domains largely represent (multiple) indicators of a single, underlying preference for government action. When compared with the more traditional perspective, this characterization of public opinion implies a very different, global pattern of representation.

Some research shows that, although preferences in different areas do move together over time, the movement is not entirely common (Wlezien, 2004). Preferences in some domains share little in common with preferences in others; these preferences often move quite independently over time. In short, the work indicates that preferences are some combination of the global and specific—moving together to some degree, but exhibiting some independent variation as well. This research also shows that policymakers reflect the specific variation, at least in some policy domains (Wlezien, 2004; also see Druckman & Jacobs, 2006). Not surprisingly, these domains tend to be highly salient to voters, the ones on which they pay close attention to what policymakers do. In other less salient domains, policy only follows the general global signal. In yet other, very low salience domains, policy seemingly does not follow preferences at all. Recent research (Soroka & Wlezien, 2010) corroborates a general pattern across countries.

Institutions and Representation

Polities differ in many ways, and some of these differences should have significant implications for the nature and degree of representation. Of fundamental importance are media openness and political competition. Without some degree of media openness, people cannot easily receive information about what government actors do, and thus cannot effectively hold politicians accountable for their actions. Without some level of political competition, governments have less incentive to respond to public opinion. There is in fact a good body of work on electoral competition and representation. Early research on the subject focuses on dyadic representation in the United States, and argues that legislators facing serious electoral competition are more likely to pay attention to their constituency. Subsequent work has identified conditions under which electoral marginality matters more or less for representative behavior—of a constituency generally, or of one’s own electorate. (For a recent review, see Griffin, 2006.) Work focused on policy outputs has also considered (and found evidence for) the impact of political competitiveness on representation (e.g., Hobolt & Klemmensen, 2008; Soroka & Wlezien, 2010).

Even where we have essential levels of media and political competition, as in most modern democracies (including new ones), institutional differences may have important implications for policy representation. Here we have a growing body of empirical work, particularly on electoral systems.

Electoral Systems

Most of this research focuses on the differences between the majoritarian and proportional visions, using Powell’s (2000) language, and mostly on how these differences matter for policy representation. Lijphart (1984) provides the first direct statement on the matter. He distinguishes between “consensual” democracies—characterized by, most notably, proportional representation, multiparty systems, and coalition governments—and “majoritarian” systems—characterized by simply plurality election rules, a two-party system, and single-party government. Most importantly, Lijphart suggests that consensual democracies provide better descriptive representation and general policy congruence than do majoritarian systems.

Powell (2000) provides further empirical support, focusing specifically on the differences between majoritarian and proportional election rules and their implications for representation. Powell finds that proportional representation tends to produce greater congruence between the government and the public; specifically, that the general ideological disposition of government and the ideological bent of the electorate tend to match up better in proportional systems. According to Powell, this reflects the greater, direct participation of constituencies the vision affords (also see Miller et al., 1999).

Powell’s results pertain to elections and their immediate consequences. But what about in the periods between elections? Are coalition governments more responsive to ongoing changes in opinion? Although proportional systems may provide more indirect representation, it is not clear that they afford greater direct representation. There is reason to think that governments in majoritarian systems actually are more responsive to opinion change. First, it presumably is easier for a single party to respond to changes than a multiparty coalition, as coordination in the latter is more difficult and costly. Second, majoritarian governments may have more of an incentive to respond to opinion change. Since a shift in electoral sentiment has bigger consequences on Election Day in majoritarian systems, governments there are likely to pay especially close attention to the ebb and flow of opinion. Thus, it may be that the two systems both work to serve representation, but in different ways, where proportional systems provide better indirect representation via elections and majoritarian systems better direct representation in between elections. Basic empirical work (Wlezien & Soroka, 2012) supports the expectation.

Government Institutions

Just as electoral systems may matter, so too may government institutions. In particular, research suggests that the horizontal division of powers may structure the relationships between opinion and policy over time.5 The concentration of powers in parliamentary systems—as opposed to presidential systems—affords voters more direct control over government on Election Day. This presumably aids indirect representation: To the extent election outcomes reflect public opinion, then policy representation will follow quite naturally, at least to the extent we have responsible parties.

The same seemingly is not true about direct representation, and there is reason to suppose that parliamentary governments are less reliable in their attendance to public opinion over time. Scholars have long noted the dominance of cabinets over parliaments (see, e.g., Cox, 1987). Scholars portray a world in which governments exercise substantial discretion, where the cabinet is the proposer, putting legislation to a legislature that ultimately has only a limited check on what the government does. Strom (2003) concludes that parliamentary government deals much better with selecting representatives—avoiding what political scientists refer to as “adverse selection”—than it does ensuring that they actually do the right thing—avoiding what political scientists call “moral hazard.” Put simply, cabinet governments are difficult to control on a recurring basis.

This has fairly direct implications for government responsiveness. When there are differences between what the cabinet and parliament want, the latter cannot effectively impose its own contrary will. The process of amendment and veto is compromised, at least by comparison with presidential systems, especially ‘Madisonian’ ones in which executive and legislative powers are balanced. In the latter the executive cannot effectively act without the legislature, at least with respect to statute. The legislature is the proposer—it puts statute to the executive—and while the executive can veto legislation the legislature can typically override. Most changes in policy require agreement between the executive and legislature, or else a supermajority in the latter. This is likely to reduce disjunctures between public opinion and policy change.

Although the separation of powers makes presidential systems more deliberate in their actions, therefore, it may also make them more reliably responsive to public opinion over time. We still expect representation in parliamentary systems, of course—after all, governments in these systems are more easily held accountable for their actions, as responsibility is far clearer, particularly in a majoritarian context. In between elections, however, there is little to make parliamentary cabinets accountable except for the prospect of a future electoral competition. Though important, the incentive is imperfect. Comparative research bears out these expectations (Wlezien & Soroka, 2012).

On Political Equality

We make regular reference to “public opinion” and “public preferences.” But what exactly is the public? Is it the collection of all of us, with each person’s preferences given equal weight? Or is it a more narrowly drawn public, including some people’s preferences but not others? Who gets what they want in policy?

In one conception, the public consists of all citizens, all adults at least. Citizens are all, more or less, equally entitled to vote, and each person has but one vote. Perhaps then we should all have equal weight where policymaking is concerned. This is an ideal, the stuff of civics textbooks; in reality, however, there is good reason to think that preferences are not equal, and that some people’s preferences are more important than others. In particular, we might expect politicians to pay special attention to the preferences of active voters. These are the people who matter on Election Day, after all—they are the ones who put (and keep) politicians in office.

The representation of voters rather than citizens would not matter much if voters were a random sample. But we know that there are differences between the voting and nonvoting public: voters tend to be better educated, have better jobs, and have higher incomes. Not surprisingly, voters tend to be more conservative than their nonvoting counterparts. If politicians are more attentive to this group, and follow the median voter, then policy will be more conservative than the median citizen would like. This is of obvious importance. We still know relatively little empirically, however, though scholarly interest is on the rise, particularly in the United States. Griffin and Newman (2005) reveal that politicians pay more attention to the opinions of voters than those of nonvoters. Bartels’s (2008) and Gilens’s (2012) recent research suggests that U.S. politicians are most attuned to the opinions of high-income voters. There may be related socio-demographic manifestations, across race for example.

Political equality also may have explicitly partisan expressions. It may be, for instance, that politicians are more responsive to in-partisans, as Hill and Hurley (2003) have argued. This and the other work on inequality in representation is important. It only scratches the surface, however. We need to know more about the breadth and depth of the inequality, both at particular points in time and over time. To the extent that there is inequality, are politicians more responsive to the opinions of the better-educated, higher-income, more right-wing voting population? Recent work has shed some light on this question (in addition to citations above, see a number of contributions in Enns & Wlezien, 2011), but much work remains to be done.

The Importance of Public Responsiveness

We have thus far concentrated on policy representation—the effect of public opinion on public policy. But policy representation ultimately requires that the public notices and responds to what policymakers do. Without such responsiveness, policymakers would have little incentive to represent what the public wants in policy—there would be no real benefit for doing so, and there would be no real cost for not doing so. Moreover, expressed preferences would be of little use even to those politicians motivated to represent the public for other reasons.

Despite ongoing concerns about the ignorance and irrationality of the average citizen, a growing body of recent work shows that the average citizen may be more informed than initially thought. This is not to say that the average citizen knows very much about politics; but there is accumulating evidence that individuals may be capable of basic, rational political judgments. Moreover, even in the face of individual ignorance, aggregate preferences often react sensibly to real-world trends (Page & Shapiro, 1992). The public reacts to both real-world affairs and policy itself, much like a thermostat (Wlezien, 1995). That is, the public adjusts its preferences for “more” or “less” policy in response to policy change, favoring less (more) policy in the wake of policy increases (decreases), ceteris paribus. This conceptualization fits nicely with functionalist models of the policy process, where policy outputs feed back on public inputs into the policymaking process.

Empirical analysis shows that public responsiveness, like policy representation, varies across policy domains and political institutions (Soroka & Wlezien, 2010). That representation is likely to be greater in salient domains is largely the product of representatives reacting in domains in which publics themselves are monitoring and reacting to policy change, for instance. Salient domains are characterized by a higher degree of both representation and responsiveness; more precisely, public responsiveness and policy representation co-vary. This is not equally true across contexts, however. Fundamental to public responsiveness is the acquisition of accurate information about what policymakers are doing, and so responsiveness will be lower when the acquisition of information is more difficult. So for instance, federalism, by increasing the number of different governments making policy, and thus making less clear what each level of government is doing may decrease responsiveness and representation.6 The horizontal division of powers may also be important, though here our expectations are less clear. Regardless, where information is easier to acquire, public responsiveness—and by implication policy representation—should be greater.

Ultimately, we expect variation across domains and institutions in both policy representation and public responsiveness. Yet the existence of each connection between opinion and policy—indeed, the existence of both connections—is critical to the functioning of representative democracy. Insofar as research seeks to understand what public preferences are, and how these are formed, then, it can be viewed as an examination of the potential for, or success of, representative democratic institutions. The literature makes a contribution to our understanding of one of the most significant and enduring questions in the study of politics: does democracy work? It does not work perfectly to be sure but in some cases it appears to work better than many of us might expect.


We thank the editor, Russell Dalton, for helpful comments and also Robert Shapiro for his input in the past.


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(1.) See also related cross-national work on party manifestos, e.g., Budge et al. 2001.

(2.) It is important to note that politicians do not always aim to represent public opinion (see Jacobs & Shapiro, 2000).

(3.) The salience of (positional) policy issues also appears to correlate with the level of partisan cleavage (also see Hill & Hurley, 2003).

(4.) There is however a related body of literature in policymaking that reveals variance in “attentiveness” over time (see Baumgartner & Jones, 2005).

(5.) The vertical division of powers also may be important, via public opinion itself: increasing the mix of governments involved in policymaking may dampen public information, which may have consequences for representation in turn (Soroka & Wlezien, 2010).

(6.) It evidently does not preclude responsiveness. Consider work on the United States (Wlezien, 1995) and Canada and the United Kingdom (Soroka & Wlezien, 2010) and research on opinion about the European Union (e.g., Franklin & Wlezien, 1997).