Can ideological inconsistency in legislators’ voting records be explained by uncertainty about constituent preferences? Do legislators ‘hedge their bets’ ideologically when faced with constituency uncertainty? This article presents an uncertainty-based theory of ideological hedging. Legislators faced with uncertainty about their constituent preferences have an incentive to present ideologically inconsistent roll-call records. Legislators experiment with a variety of roll-call positions in order to learn the preferences of their constituents. An examination of US senators during 1961–2004 shows that uncertainty due to black enfranchisement and mobilization led to higher ideological inconsistency in legislative voting records. Ideologically inconsistent behaviour by elected officials can be characterized as best responses to a changing and uncertain environment. These results have implications for representation and the stability of democracy.
(Online publication March 29 2011)
* Department of Government, American University; and Department of Political Science, University of Southern California, respectively (email: [email protected]). The authors would like to thank Jim Adams, Joe Aistrup, Jeb Barnes, Ben Bishin, Michael Brady, Shaun Bowler, Josh Clinton, John Geer, John Griffin, Trey Hood, Jennifer Jensen, Benjamin Lauderdale, Jeff Lazarus, Seth McKee, Bruce Oppenheimer, Keith Poole, Dave Rohde, Zeynep Somer-Topcu and Nick Weller for comments and suggestions; and also Carrie Russell, Jeremiah Garretson, Frank Wilson, John Hudak and Emily Parsons for research assistance. Replication data for this article are available from the authors.