Representational Style: What Legislators Say and Why It Matters

Speaker: Justin Grimmer, Stanford

Location: Searle 240A, University of Chicago

In a representative democracy elected officials face the representative’s problem: elected office provides legislators resources and motivation to cultivate constituent support, but constituents lack the incentive and capacity to track their representative’s actions.  In this presentation, I show how legislators turn this problem into an opportunity---using strategic communication to influence how they are evaluated by constituents.  I use a new statistical topic model and collections of press releases, floor speeches, newsletters and media coverage to characterize how legislators present their work to constituents.  This shows how representatives strategically direct attention towards activities that are likely to cultivate support and direct attention away from unpopular actions.  Legislators who represent districts with a large composition of co-partisans regularly articulate policy positions, while representatives who represent districts with a large composition of opposing partisans avoid policy and instead claim credit for expenditures.  Legislators' messages are effective at influencing the terms of evaluation and cultivating constituent support.  I use survey experiments and an ensemble method for estimating heterogeneous treatment effects to examine the effect of one type of legislative communication---claiming credit for government expenditures. Claiming credit for projects causes constituents to allocate credit to legislators---even if the spending is still far from the district or unlikely to occur.  Constituents are much less responsive, however, to expenditure size.  Together, this presentation shows how legislators’ communication with constituents matters for representation in American politics and how computational tools can be used to examine previously difficult to study questions in politics. 

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