We have an idea of American democracy that goes something like this: The Constitution gives different politicians oversight over different governmental bodies, which in turn affect citizens at the national, state, and local levels.
The politicians who control these different governmental bodies are, naturally, different people. So if a state lawmaker is doing a crummy job or passing unpopular legislation, her constituents can punish her individually at the ballot box.
There’s just one problem: This seems to be not at all what really happens.
In his new study, Rogers writes that the public often has no idea what’s going on in their state legislatures, or what their state representatives are arguing about or why. They don’t even know who their representatives are.
“I mean, ask yourself, do you know who your state legislator is? Do you know what they do in their day-to-day job?” Rogers says in an interview. (I didn’t, but I also live in Washington, DC, which doesn’t have a state legislature, so at least I have an excuse.) “The answer for most people is ‘no’ and ‘no,’ so they then have to make an evaluation based on something — even if that something has little to nothing to do with what the state legislator does herself.”
He notes that just 1 percent of local news is about statehouse news. The vast majority of local coverage — more than 60 percent — is instead about the presidential election, one study found.
Fewer than 20 percent of voters can identify their state legislator, according to a Vanderbilt study published in 2013. An even higher number have no opinion about whether said legislator is doing a good job.
Not knowing who your lawmaker is will make it pretty difficult to evaluate his or her work. So how are voters making up their minds?
It is in this void that voters tend to focus on something else altogether: what they think of the president.
It’s not that voters’ perceptions of the state legislatures themselves are completely irrelevant. Voters are about 6 percent more likely to vote against their state lawmaker if they disapprove of their state legislature, and they’re about 9 percent more likely to do so if they disapprove of their governor.
But the president’s popularity was way, way more important in shaping outcomes for state lawmakers.
Mitch McConnell’s evil genius, in other words, works on two levels. Voters don’t blame legislators for obstruction, and because the president gets the bulk of the blame he also helps Republicans on the state level.