This year, the UMass Poll partnered with the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress (FMC) to probe former lawmakers’ views about the performance of Congress, the state of democracy, and more. Good Authority editor Sarah Binder interviewed Alexander Theodoridis, associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and co-director of the UMass Poll, to explore those findings. The full survey and results appear here.
Sarah Binder: This is such a fascinating survey. Tell us a bit about how the partnership with former lawmakers came about and what UMass Poll hoped to learn from the collaboration.
Alexander Theodoridis: This was the product of the serendipity upon which research often depends. A mentor of mine is my former congressman, L.F. Payne (D-Va., 1988-1997). I interned for him in college and worked for one of his campaigns. He mentioned that he was the current president of the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress, and a lightbulb immediately went off above my head. I suggested that it might be mutually beneficial to conduct a survey of the association’s members; they were excited about it because they are in the process of doing some strategic planning. So, I connected with a group of scholars who study Congress and electoral politics and put together an extensive survey. Then, using the FMC’s email list and relying on its reputation among former members and a lot of hounding from me, we were able to get nearly 300 former members to take the survey. Two hundred ninety-three answered some part of it, and 237 finished the entire survey.
My hope going into this was to really serve three overlapping purposes: 1) to ask questions of this rare elite sample that will allow me and other scholars to produce academic articles for years to come; 2) to get media attention for the UMass Poll and FMC in a way that informs discourse on the topics we asked about; and 3) to help the FMC learn more about what their members want. I think these data are well on their way to serving all three goals.
Let’s dive in. What do you see as the most important findings?
The data we have analyzed and released so far offer the first systematic look at the attitudes and first-hand experiences of former members. Much of what we find is concerning.
We learned a lot about political violence. Nearly half of former members tell us they or their family members received threats during their time in office. And as if that isn’t problematic enough, we see that the reported rate of threats is higher for members who served more recently, and especially high for women and people of color. Eighty-four percent of former members tell us they are concerned about the prospect of violence surrounding the 2024 elections.
We asked the former members an open-ended item on the current state of Congress, and they provided almost exclusively negative takes. “Dysfunctional,” “partisan,” “polarized,” “divided,” and “mess” were the most commonly used descriptors. More than 80 percent of former members in this survey believe that the legislative branch has lost power compared to the executive branch. And 65 percent believe the legislative branch has lost power compared to the judicial branch.
We also asked the former members what reforms they think could improve the effectiveness of Congress. Seventeen percent talked about reforming the committee system. Eleven percent wanted to see reforms of filibuster or cloture rules in the Senate. Nine percent suggested changes to the budgeting or appropriations process and another 9 percent suggested rules that would incentivize bipartisanship.
We also learned a tremendous amount about the views of former members regarding the 2020 presidential elections, Donald Trump, and the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Those results (especially those of Republican former members) are particularly interesting when compared to the opinions expressed by the mass public in our national polls.
Just a treasure trove of remarkable data. Another fascinating result was the comparison to the views of general respondents in the ongoing UMass Poll. Was that your intention all along? How did you come to draw these comparisons?
Yes, the goal from the beginning was to be able to make comparisons on some of these more media-friendly items, especially those related to the 2020 election and the January 6 insurrection. Obviously, how members of this group view those events is relevant for public understanding. I intentionally used some items identical to those we had asked in early UMass Polls of the U.S. voting-age population at large.
Your research explores the impact of partisan identity and polarization. Do these survey results surprise you in any way?
The Republican former members in our sample, who skew conservative and include a lot of VERY partisan Republicans, many of whom are still quite active, generally are not drinking the Trump Kool-Aid. Eighty-two percent of them tell us that Biden’s election was legitimate and two-thirds say Trump’s efforts to claim he won the 2020 election threaten American democracy. Well under a third of rank-and-file Republicans tell us these things, and the current bunch in Congress do not seem inclined to call out Trump’s disinformation in this way.
That stark contrast between the responses of Republican former members of Congress and the GOP electorate (not to mention the public positions of many current Republican elected officials) was particularly striking.
Lessons learned from the results that will inform your ongoing research?
In terms of informing my ongoing research, yes, some of these results will be quite useful in telling us things about partisanship and polarization at elite levels. And the items we have analyzed so far are really just the tip of the iceberg. This was a massive survey, which included many questions related to mass and elite polarization, but also other topics specific to studies of Congress and congressional elections.
Any sense of why the former GOP members – despite their conservative ideology and partisanship – aren’t drinking the Kool-aid? (Or are no longer drinking the Kool-aid?) Is this just severing what political scientist David Mayhew decades ago called the “electoral connection“ – the idea that lawmakers’ proximate goal is always to get elected? Leaving Congress generates more sober evaluations because lawmakers are no longer being beholden to voters?
Why they differ is a hard question to answer, though I think there are some hints to possible explanations whose validity will become more apparent as we go deeper into the data. One hypothesis is obviously that these are former members, not current, and that the GOP has shifted in a Trumpist direction. So, that would argue that the composition of current members just differs in some fundamental ways from the composition of living former members of Congress.
An alternative is, as you note, that electoral pressure is the reason we see former members willing to answer in ways that current members just won’t. So, fundamentally, the question is, if you asked current GOP members these same questions with either the assurance of confidentiality or an injection of truth serum, would the answers look like those their public actions imply or would they resemble the opinions we found among our sample?
I can’t answer this definitively, but my guess is that the reality is somewhere in the middle. I would imagine that some of our respondents in this survey would likely say somewhat different things if they were still in Congress and that many current Republican members of Congress would look a bit more like our sample if they didn’t fear electoral consequences (or costs associated with crossing their fellow members and the Republican congressional leadership). The sad irony here is that the Republican voters to whom current GOP politicians may be conforming do not form their opinions in a vacuum, they take cues from those very same Republican politicians. It is a vicious cycle. The unwillingness of most Republican elites to challenge Trump’s claims about the election and January 6 is one reason so many of their voters buy into these claims.
Okay. I’ll be patient and wait for your future analyses of these data! Thinking about the array of legislators who participated, I was also intrigued by the graph (below) showing where on the ideological spectrum these former lawmakers placed themselves. Democrats seemed middle of the road; Republicans, quite conservative. Curious – have you pegged the respondents to conventional, vote-based measures of ideological placement?
We have not yet compared their self-reports to things like Nominate scores, a method using legislators’ roll call votes to estimate their ideological positions. But one of the great things about this sample is that we can do that. I intentionally made the survey confidential, but not anonymous. So, we didn’t have to waste time asking basic things like partisanship, but we can also merge these data with literally anything that is known about these former members. The plan is to really examine the respondents in light of all sorts of outside data points. So far, the focus has been on designing the survey, collecting the data (which took a lot of recruitment), and analyzing the data most likely to inform media discourse. But now, my attention and the attention of several other scholars involved in this effort will turn to the wealth of questions that can be explored using both the survey items and other data we have on these members and their districts. My hope is that this will contribute to scholarship on a wide range of topics. Eventually, I would like to set up a mechanism by which other scholars, perhaps through a call for proposals, could make use of these data (while of course still protecting the confidentiality of the respondents).
Were you surprised that large numbers of former members from both parties said that if they were starting their careers again, they would still choose to run for public office? (Wonder how ex-Rep. George Santos would answer that one.) But that commitment to public service contrasts starkly with what we often infer (perhaps mistakenly) from the spate of lawmakers throwing in the towel.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect from that item, so I guess I didn’t have strong priors. I was pleased, though, because it provided something of a ray of hope in what is otherwise a somewhat pessimistic take on the current state of Congress and American politics. They spent all this time telling us how dysfunctional things are, but they still say that they would do it all over again in today’s Congress. I think that’s positive. One of my big fears – and there has been some recent discussion of this by political scientists Lee Drutman, Danielle Thomsen, and others – is that the current state of affairs in Congress would repel the kind of public servants we should want representing us and would attract those we shouldn’t. So while I still worry about that, I think maybe the answer to that one question gives one some hope.
Were there any big lessons learned? Anything you would do differently next time? Can you see UMassPoll surveying, say, former federal judges?
Like most of the former members, I would still pursue this project if I were starting over today. I think this survey so far has already given voice to an important group that doesn’t usually speak in aggregate.
The coverage of the survey has mostly been quite enlightening. When I first started, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. There have been other elite surveys, of course, and we have learned a lot from those. But, I am not sure there has been one THIS elite. You can’t really run a systematic survey like this of current members, because they would either not answer at all or answer very strategically, and it would generally be staff filling them out anyway. These former representatives and senators were generally quite willing to engage with this survey seriously. I am confident that their willingness to do so will prove very valuable for scholars and the broader community for a long time.
The importance of the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress in this cannot be overstated. Working with them gave a level of credibility without which I am sure our response rate would be a small fraction of what we got. So, in terms of other elite samples, I think a strong partnership like what we developed with the FMC would be essential. So yes, given the right circumstances, my UMass Poll colleagues and I would love to merge our expertise in survey methodology with groups that would provide access to these sorts of elite samples.