Skip to content ↓

Christopher Warshaw: Mapping a Democracy

Assistant Professor Christopher Warshaw.
Assistant Professor Christopher Warshaw.
Photo: Stuart Darsch

There is a place for each of us on Christopher Warshaw's geopolitical map of the United States. The recently appointed assistant professor of political science can figure out people's political preferences down to the congressional district, city and town. Warshaw, who earned both a PhD in political science and a JD from Stanford University, says he has "always found it fascinating to try to break things down by geography." But he is not simply interested in plotting public opinion in a near-microscopic fashion. Rather, Warshaw's larger goal involves assessing the degree to which public officials "represent the will of their constituents," a critical aspect of a successful, functioning democracy.

Warshaw zeroed in on the intersection of politics and policy after college, when he conducted economic analyses of the Bush Administration's Clear Skies Initiative for an environmental policy firm. But Warshaw, who describes himself as "passionate about environmental policy," soon realized that the Bush administration "was more concerned about reducing costs for industry than health benefits." As a result of this experience, he became less engaged with trying "to optimize the right policy, and much more interested in the political process.

"I wanted to know why we ended up with the policies we did," Warshaw says.

To this end, he decided on a course of graduate study in American politics. But he discovered that the kind of data he was looking for — surveys on the political beliefs and interests of large numbers of Americans across the country — was lacking. So Warshaw set out to develop new statistical tools to "understand what people in a particular place want," given only limited, aggregate survey information.

By applying a statistical method called multilevel regression analysis and post-stratification, Warshaw was able to incorporate information about survey respondents' demographic background and geographic location in order to accurately estimate the public opinion of each geographic place. This approach leverages the fact that geographic places with similar demographic features, such as congressional districts in rural Alabama and Arkansas, generally also have similar political preferences. "Given that one place looks similar in all the ways we can measure, it is probably going to be similar in political ways as well," Warshaw says.

Warshaw applied these statistical techniques to determine the policy preferences of Americans all over the country on a range of questions, from the timeline for withdrawal from Iraq, to Bush administration tax cuts. In his recently completed dissertation, Warshaw took the analysis even further, determining what percentage of time members of Congress from 2001 to 2010 voted in a way that reflected their constituents' beliefs. "This is the first occasion that anyone has been able to evaluate how often representatives' roll call votes line up with the views of their constituents across a wide range of issues," Warshaw notes.

Among the insights to emerge from Warshaw's studies: Individual legislators will vote for his or her party's position on a bill, unless 80 percent of voters in the legislator's district support the opposite stand. "It takes an overwhelming majority to get legislators to cross partisan lines," says Warshaw, which is "one of the things that most frustrates people about Congress."

Warshaw has found that it is a "myth" that a legislator is more likely to act on an issue the more visible it is. However, "the more media coverage an issue receives, the more responsive a legislator is to the partisan base," he says. Financial reform legislation in 2009 and 2010 received enormous press, and the majority of voters supported it, including those in conservative districts, yet most Republicans voted against the bills. Warshaw also learned that in districts hosting fierce electoral contests, representatives paid keenest attention to voters.

Warshaw's current research focuses on the responsiveness of city governments, and whether city managers, those much-vaunted efficiency experts, do a better job reflecting citizen's preferences than mayors on such issues as sales and property taxes, same-sex partner benefits, and environmental regulations.

With election season in full swing, and no sign of toxic political discourse easing anytime soon, Warshaw hopes his studies will help define "what kind of institutions improve representation." In spite of record levels of distrust in political institutions like Congress, he says Americans are "paying attention to the issues of the day" and "whether legislators vote the way they want them to vote." He concludes, "Most people care about government solving problems in the world, taking actions that at a broad level represent their interests."

Related Links

Related Topics

More MIT News