Constituents’ responses to descriptive and substantive representation in Congress


Objectives: This article examines whether the descriptive representation of race and ethnicity in- fluences how constituents respond to the substantive representation of their policy preferences. Hypotheses derived from theories of descriptive representation suggest that voters may overestimate policy congruence, or downplay its importance, while evaluating politicians who “look like” them. Methods: A unique sample of black, Hispanic, and white Americans was asked to evaluate a (fictitious) member of the U.S. Congress whose race/ethnicity and policy positions are randomly manipulated. Results: Regardless of their actual policy positions, blacks perceived greater substantive representation from black politicians. Also holding policy congruence constant, whites approved of white politicians at distinctly higher rates. Education moderates this effect, such that less-educated whites respond more negatively to representation by nonwhite legislators. Conclusions: Being represented by someone of the same race can diminish accountability for legislators’ substantive records, an important cost of descriptive representation.

Social Science Quarterly 97(3):682–698
Philip Edward Jones
Philip Edward Jones
Associate Professor of Political Science