A new USC study examines 10 high-profile issues in 50 states to determine whether public policies match the will of the American populace.
The study was conducted by John Matsusaka, USC Marshall School of Business vice dean for faculty and academic affairs, president of the USC Initiative and Referendum Institute and professor of finance and business economics. Matsusaka has a joint appointment at the USC Gould School of Law.
Published in the Quarterly Journal of Political Science, the study reviews 500 cases involving controversial issues such as the death penalty, same-sex marriage, abortion, term limits and school prayer.
The report seeks to measure the congruence or alignment between established policy and public opinion. It also investigates whether several election processes have significant impact to ensure that future policies more accurately represent public opinion.
Among the key findings:
• Forty-one percent of the time, states chose policies opposed by the majority of citizens (this is true measuring all citizens, only those who vote or those with strong preferences). The fact that 59 percent of the time, states chose policies that are in line with public sentiment is only 9 percent better than “random policymaking” in which policy would be selected by the “flip of a coin.”
• Election institutions favored by reformers do not have statistically significant impact in ensuring greater congruence or alignment between policy and public opinion.
• Commission-based redistricting does not appear to make policy correspond more closely with popular opinion.
• Policy and public opinion are most in sync when the following conditions are met:
1) The initiative process is present. The initiative process appears to increase congruence between policy and public opinion by 18 to 19 percent after controlling for other explanatory factors. While some pundits argue that initiatives allow special interests to override the majority, the data implies that initiatives allow for greater democracy.
2) When judges are appointed and do not have to stand for election, policy alignment with public opinion is 11 to 13 percent lower.
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