How Do Members of Congress Make Up Their Minds?

James A. BarnesContributing editor
December 18, 2013, 6:00 PM UTC

Insiders in both parties gave their highest rating to "quantitative local impact" research.

As House Speaker Tip O’Neill used to say, “All politics is local.”

Political insiders see inputs from the home front as having the biggest sway over Members of Congress when they tackle an issue. This is one of the key findings of a YouGov survey of almost 200 political elites—campaign consultants, party strategists, operatives and lobbyists—conducted in late November.

When asked to rate the types of research on a scale of 1-to-5 that are helpful to “how a Member of Congress makes a decision on an issue” (with 1 being very unhelpful and 5 being very helpful) there was a similar bi-partisan consensus among Insiders that the local touch is key.

Insiders in both parties gave their highest rating to “quantitative local impact” research “(e.g. impact study on district),” Democrats 4.0, Republicans 4.2. Also garnering a high score from Insiders in both parties was “local stories (e.g. on-the-ground experience of a business owner),” Democrats 3.9, Republicans 4.1.

The lowest rating, again in both parties, was for research based on “quantitative national impact (e.g., Ernst and Young study),” Democrats 2.9, Republicans 3.2. Likewise, the helpfulness of a “broad public opinion survey” was rated relatively low: Democrats 3.2, Republicans 3.3.

When a separate panel of congressional staffers was asked to rate value of the same list of factors, they generally shared the sentiments of the political Insiders on this question. But they diverged interestingly in rating the helpfulness of “information from committees and leadership offices.” Overall, the average score from all political Insiders on this input was 3.5 while the average score from congressional staffers was 4.0. Perhaps the latter group is more sensitive to the crack of the whip.

Note to hard-bitten skeptics out there, we didn’t include an option that related to campaign contributions. That’s for a future survey.      

And what about the news consumption habits of congressional offices? Yet again, there was a lot agreement in the perceptions of Democratic and Republican Insiders regarding which media a congressional office pays the most attention to (again on a 1-to-5 scale with 5 being close attention and 1 being no attention at all).

Insiders gave their highest ratings to: state and local newspapers, D’s 4.2, R’s 4.3; and local TV, D’s 3.7; R’s 4.0.

What about The New York Times or CNN or FOX? Meh. Political Insiders gave an average score of 3.5 to national newspapers and 3.4 to national television programing in terms of what they think congressional offices pay attention to.

But guess what? Those congressional staffers are watching and reading what most Insiders are. Congressional staffers agreed that a good deal of attention is paid to state and local papers (4.3) and local TV (3.8), but they also assigned a 4.3 rating to national newspapers and a 4.1 rating national TV. They also rated “DC-centric outlets (Politico, The Hill) at 4.1, while Political Insiders overall scored the Inside-the-Beltway media at 3.6.  

-- James A. Barnes

James A. Barnes is a veteran Washington journalist who created the National Journal Political Insiders Poll and conducted elite surveys for CNN during the 2012 Republican presidential nominating contest.  The YouGov Political Insiders Survey is comprised of interviews with leading players in political and policy campaigns in Washington D.C. and in state capitals around the country.

Topline results can be found here. 
Detailed results can be found here. 
Full report from Hamilton Place Strategies survey can be found here.

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