J ason B arabas is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY, USA. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Annual Meetings of the Midwest Political Science Association. The author appreciates the helpful comments and assistance he received from Scott Bokemper, Nechama Horwitz, Jennifer Jerit, April Johnson, Christine Peterson, and from the staff members of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research as well as the participants in research workshops at the University of Connecticut and Florida State University. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provided generous research assistance through its Scholars in Health Policy Research Program. The paper would not have been possible without the willingness of Sarah Binder and Martin Gilens to share their data and analytical advice. Finally, Chris Wlezien’s motivational comments were pivotal.
Democratic responsiveness concerns the degree to which government policies match public preferences. Responsiveness studies typically use national surveys to characterize public opinion, but whether poll questions overlap with the policy agenda is unknown. The first of two empirical analyses presented here, with hundreds of issues on the national agenda in the United States from 1947 to 2000, reveals that public opinion is mostly unrelated to policy outcomes. The picture appears to be even more ominous—that is, opinion and policy are negatively related—on highly salient issues that attract media attention. A second study revisiting published work confirms that responsiveness patterns look different depending upon whether studies of opinion-policy connections (a) begin with survey data and then examine policy developments, or (b) begin with national legislative agenda issues and then examine survey data. Thus, conclusions about democratic responsiveness depend upon the issues that are examined, and often opinion surveys do not include questions about tangible public policy options. In that sense, future changes in democratic responsiveness might go undetected because scholars often lack data on what goes into the denominator of democracy.