Who decides which issues legislators address: the public or the legislators themselves? We analyzed tweets posted during the 113th U.S. Congress and found that legislators are more likely to follow than to lead in the discussion of public issues.
Barberá, Pablo, Andreu Casas, Jonathan Nagler, Patrick J. Egan, Richard Bonneau, John T. Jost, and Joshua A. Tucker. “Who Leads? Who Follows? Measuring Issue Attention and Agenda Setting by Legislators and the Mass Public Using Social Media Data.” American Political Science Review 113, no. 4 (2019): 883–901. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0003055419000352
Jul 12, 2019
Area of Study
Are legislators responsive to the priorities of the public? Research demonstrates a strong correspondence between the issues about which the public cares and the issues addressed by politicians, but conclusive evidence about who leads whom in setting the political agenda has yet to be uncovered. We answer this question with fine-grained temporal analyses of Twitter messages by legislators and the public during the 113th U.S. Congress. After employing an unsupervised method that classifies tweets sent by legislators and citizens into topics, we use vector autoregression models to explore whose priorities more strongly predict the relationship between citizens and politicians. We find that legislators are more likely to follow, than to lead, discussion of public issues, results that hold even after controlling for the agenda-setting effects of the media. We also find, however, that legislators are more likely to be responsive to their supporters than to the general public.
How responsive are legislators to the priorities of the public? Previous research demonstrates a strong correspondence between the issues addressed by politicians, and the issues that the public cares about. But the question of who generates concern for these issues, and who supports them, has yet to be answered. Specifically, we want to uncover who in the public has more say about the agenda-setting for particular issues. Do politicians primarily respond to their supporters, or do they listen to the general public an equal amount?
We answer these questions by analyzing Twitter posts made by legislators and the public during the 113th U.S. Congress. Although imperfect, tweets are used as a proxy to measure attention paid to political issues. Through this process we are able to pinpoint, with precision, the extent to which politicians allocate attention to different issues before or after shifts in issue-attention is paid by the public. We then use vector autoregression models to explore whose priorities (i.e., citizens’, partisan-supporters’, or politicians’) more strongly predict the priorities for all.
Generally, we find that legislators are more likely to follow, than to lead, in the discussion of public issues. We also find that legislators are more responsive to their supporters than to the general public.