Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Yes We Can or Yes He Can? Citizen Preferences regarding Styles of Representation and Presidential Voting Behavior

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Yes We Can or Yes He Can? Citizen Preferences regarding Styles of Representation and Presidential Voting Behavior

Article excerpt

In trying to explain the 2008 presidential election outcome, there is no shortage of places to look. A strong candidate with an impressive campaign organization, Barack Obama also received a number of significant breaks on his way to Pennsylvania Avenue. The Democratic nominating rules (proportional as opposed to winner-take-all allocation of delegates) and calendar (especially Florida's and Michigan's decisions to move forward their primary dates, resulting in their convention delegates being stripped) facilitated Obama's defeat of front-runner Hillary Clinton, as did a largely sympathetic media and a funding advantage built on the backs of those who opposed the Iraq occupation and saw Senator Clinton as complicit in that occupation. As for the general election, fortune smiled even brighter on Mr. Obama. All of the electorally determinative "usual suspects" were there (plus a few more): a disillusioned (and shrunken) GOP, an unpopular incumbent president, a rapidly tanking economy, an energized Democratic base, an erratic rival (McCain's decisions to suspend the campaign and to choose Sarah Palin as running mate, among others), and an opportunistic entertainment media (think Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live). These factors all made Obama's victory march much easier than it might have been had he decided to wait until some future year to run.

All this is to say that, in the end, circumstances beyond the candidates' control made the job of presidential election forecasters relatively easy this time. But the ready availability of standard explanations may tempt us to overlook additional factors that might have contributed to the outcome, and that may also be important to electoral behavior more generally. We suggest that there indeed was, and is, something else that affected, and affects, presidential votes that has not been considered by the extant literature. That "something else," we suggest, has to do with citizens' perceptions of, and satisfaction with, the democratic process as it pertains to political representation.

A growing body of scholarship has demonstrated that public attitudes regarding matters of political "process" can be as politically consequential (if not more so) as policy-related attitudes, at least in some ways (e.g., Bowler and Donovan 2002; Carman 2006, 2007; Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 2002). This literature has not, however, sought to understand how such orientations toward the democratic process may actually influence electoral behavior. In this article, we take that next step, arguing that citizen preferences regarding styles of representation bear significant relation to electoral choices, at both the nomination and the general election stages.

The following sections (1) ground our argument theoretically, (2) describe our data and methodology, (3) report our findings, and (4) discuss the implications of those findings.

Conscience versus Constituents: How Do Citizens Expect to be Represented?

Understanding how political representation "works" is fundamental to the study of democratic governance. Accordingly, political scientists have spilled generous amounts of ink in pursuit of such understanding (for general overviews, see Mansbridge 2003; Pitkin 1967). (1) Surprisingly, though, scholars still know very little about the demand side of the representation equation: the ways citizens vary in terms of how responsive they want representatives to be. In this paper, we start filling that gap. We focus specifically on the degree to which citizens expect those they elect to (1) follow the pull of their consciences, even if that means sometimes ignoring what their constituents want, or (2) follow what constituents want, even if that means ignoring their own preferences or those of their party leaders. We label the former conscience-based representation, and the latter constituent-based representation. (2)

We believe that the paucity of scholarly attention that has been given to exploring such preferences severely limits the reach of our collective understanding of political representation. …

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