J. Scott Applewhite, AP
This Wednesday, Aug. 1 file photo shows the Capitol in Washington.

Whether the Democrats or the Republicans seize control of Congress after the midterms, you can be sure of one thing: They will have very little idea what laws the public actually wants them to act on.

The current Republican-controlled Congress is a good example. Its signature accomplishment is a tax-cut bill that hardly anyone likes or asked for and that is estimated to add about $2 trillion to the national debt over the next decade.

Only about 30 percent of Americans supported it — unlike the well over 70 percent of Americans who consistently support raising the minimum wage, background checks for gun sales and taking action on the climate crisis. Bills were actually proposed on these issues, but you would hardly know it; they were barely considered, and it goes without saying that none passed.

Congress doesn’t know what policies Americans support. We know that because we asked the most senior staff members in Congress — the people who help their bosses decide what bills to pursue and support — what they believed public opinion was in their district or state on a range of issues.

In a research paper, we compared their responses with our best guesses of what the public in their districts or states actually wanted using large-scale public opinion surveys and standard models. Across the board, we found that congressional aides are wildly inaccurate in their perceptions of their constituents’ opinions and preferences.

For instance, if we took a group of people who reflected the makeup of America and asked them whether they supported background checks for gun sales, 9 out of 10 would say yes. But congressional aides guessed as few as 1 in 10 citizens in their district or state favored the policy. Shockingly, 92 percent of the staff members we surveyed underestimated support in their district or state for background checks, including all Republican aides and over 85 percent of Democratic aides.

The same is true for the four other issues we looked at: regulating carbon emissions to address the climate crisis, repealing the Affordable Care Act, raising the federal minimum wage and investing in infrastructure. On climate change, the average aide thought only a minority of his or her district wanted action, when in truth a majority supported regulating carbon.

Across the five issues, Democratic staff members tended to be more accurate than Republicans. Democrats guessed about 13 points closer to the truth on average than Republicans.

Our research isn’t unique: As a similar study showed, state politicians also do a poor job guessing public opinion of their constituents. We found two key factors that explain why members of Congress are so ignorant of public preferences: their staffs’ own beliefs and congressional offices’ relationships with interest groups.

Aides usually assumed that the public agreed with their own policy views. If an aide did not personally support acting on climate change, he or she was less likely to think that constituents wanted action. This self-centered bias is common in other areas of life — we all tend to think that other people share our preferences. But we aren’t all charged with understanding what the public wants to ensure democratic representation.

Interest groups also played an important role in explaining congressional staffs’ errors. Aides who reported meeting with groups representing big business — like the United States Chamber of Commerce or the American Petroleum Institute — were more likely to get their constituents’ opinions wrong compared with staffers who reported meeting with mass membership groups that represented ordinary Americans, like the Sierra Club or labor unions. The same pattern holds for campaign contributions: The more that offices get support from fossil fuel companies over environmental groups, the more they underestimate state- or district-level support for climate action.

Since most congressional offices cannot regularly field public opinion surveys of their constituents, staff members depend heavily on meetings and relationships with interest groups to piece together a picture of what their constituents want. And if offices hear from only deep-pocketed interest groups, they are likely to miss out on the opinions of ordinary Americans.

23 comments on this story

We should not place all the blame on Congress. The public contributes to the problem by not taking the time to express its opinions to politicians or vote. For example, recent polling shows that supporters of tighter gun regulations are much less likely to contact Congress than those who oppose gun control. Without citizen participation, it’s hard to imagine how political staffs can accurately gauge public attitudes in their districts and states.

The forthcoming midterm elections are an important opportunity for the public to make its policy choices clear to Congress. But political action can’t end on Election Day. Citizens need to keep writing, calling and meeting with elected officials and their staffs long after the midterms. Otherwise, Congress will continue to misunderstand the public’s preferences. And if Congress doesn’t know what the public wants, it’s hard to imagine it will do a good job representing all Americans.