Stefaan Walgrave and Karolin Soontjens outline the findings of a recent study on how politicians learn about public opinion. Across five countries with different political systems, they find that politicians view direct contact with citizens as the most useful way to find out about public opinion.
In democracies elected representatives make decisions, at least to some extent, based on what the people want. To do this politicians need to learn about the preferences of the public and then following up on those perceptions. Therefore, an important question to ask is how politicians learn about public opinion. Or put differently: what sources do they favour to get a sense of what citizens want?
After all, the sources politicians (prefer to) consult, have a bearing on their perceptions of public opinion and, probably, on the errors and biases in those perceptions. Estimating public opinion is tricky. Politicians cannot directly perceive ‘the’ public or ‘the’ electorate. They are unavoidably confronted with proxies, with samples of public opinion signals that they then aggregate, weigh, and generalize – to the general population, their party voters, or to a particular group of people they aim to represent. And some sources politicians use provide proxies that are harder to generalise than others, some sources simply provide more biased signals than others.
To study politicians’ source use, we did surveys with incumbent national and regional members of parliament in five countries: Belgium, Canada, The Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland. These countries, all Western democracies, present a fairly diverse sample in terms of Western political systems with majoritarian (Canada), very proportional (The Netherlands), moderately proportional (Belgium), mixed (Germany), and sui generis (Switzerland) systems.
In 2018, in total 898 politicians from these countries responded to our question on source use in a face-to-face survey. Concretely, politicians were asked to rank a list of sources based on their usefulness for learning about public opinion. The chart below shows the results across all countries.
Overall, politicians feel that direct contact with citizens is the most useful way to get informed about the public’s preferences. In a sense, it is surprising that politicians attribute most indicative power to one of the sources that is least aggregated, and that provides politicians with almost unavoidably skewed signals. It is likely that politicians value those informal meetings not only to learn whether people are in favour or against a certain policy, but also to ‘feel the public mood’, and to see how strongly people care about certain issues and what arguments they might have for those opinions.
Consulting traditional media is considered by politicians as the second most useful way to stay abreast of the public’s preferences.
The third most useful source of public opinion, politicians say, is talking to people they are close to. Politicians seem to rely partly on a number of confidants to get a feel of what it is that the people want. Note that, here again, the extrapolation work that politicians need to engage in to generalise the signals they get from these people they know well to a larger population is quite daunting. Maybe even more than the ordinary (unknown) people they talk to, politicians’ inner circle of family and friends is substantially skewed both in socio-economic and political terms, and this doubtlessly translates into a similarly unrepresentative network.
Social movements and interest groups are quite useful as well, politicians claim. This means that they appreciate the organized, mobilized public opinion that they are exposed to via organisations.
The last four sources were mentioned significantly less as useful public opinion sources. Remarkably, social media scores rather low. Notwithstanding the ubiquitous presence of social media, and the fact that politicians use social media intensely to send their messages to the public, social media signals are not considered to be good indications of what citizens want.
The very limited usefulness of polls from other organizations and polls from their own party is to some extent surprising given that polls offer aggregated public opinion signals that require little extrapolation. In part, the reason may be that about many issues polls are simply not available. Contact with journalists closes the ranks.
In all countries (see the chart above), politicians consider direct interaction with citizens the number one most useful source. In political systems that differ from each other in many respects – e.g. majoritarian versus proportional electoral systems, weak versus strong party systems –, talking to ordinary people is considered most valuable in the process of understanding public opinion. Consulting traditional media scores consistently high as well – in three countries it is the number two source, and in Switzerland and The Netherlands the source is ranked third, on average. Talking to one’s close network scores high in most countries as well – except for the Netherlands, where it ranks seventh.
On the opposite side, in every country, talking to journalists is considered the least useful public opinion source. Results concerning social media are pretty consistent as well; they do not play an essential role in any of the countries (but most so in Germany). Finally, polls and interest groups take a similar place in the five countries as well, with some differences – especially in the Netherlands, social movements/interest groups are considered important public opinion sources. Hence, by and large, and notwithstanding the diversity of the political systems in our sample, we do find strikingly similar patterns in all countries.
This finding places a substantial burden on politicians’ shoulders. Representatives prefer direct, raw, unmediated, and unaggregated public opinion signals (contact with ordinary people and their intimate network) above indirect, mediated, and aggregated signals (such as polls or talking to journalists).
Politicians are probably aware of the fact that the ‘ordinary’ people they talk to cannot possibly form a representative sample of the public at large (at least, this is what Walgrave et al., 2022 found in Belgium). Yet, in what way the people they talk to diverge from the rest of the population is tough to judge.