A constituency is the portion of a nation, state, or locality represented by a particular elected official or other political leader. The term can refer to a group of people (for instance, the constituency of a U.S. senator from Illinois includes all the people who live in Illinois) or a geographic area (the state itself). Political scientist Richard F. Fenno Jr. (1978) parses the term more finely, to incorporate four types of constituencies. A geographic constituency is defined by boundaries fixed by legislative or court action; it can be based on a district’s size, its location, its industrial or business character, or the socioeconomic status, ethnicity, or other characteristics of its population. A reelection constituency consists of the people in a district whom a representative considers his or her supporters: that is, those likely to vote for the candidate’s reelection. A primary constituency includes a representative’s strongest supporters— his or her “base,” often including activists for groups that ally themselves with the candidate. Finally, the term personal constituency refers to a representative’s closest advisers and confidants, who may influence his or her decision-making. When a representative speaks of constituency, then, it is important for a social scientist to determine how the representative defines that term.
Research shows that a constituency can be represented in many ways (Eulau and Karps 1977). Policy responsiveness occurs when a representative advocates the preferred issues of the majority of his or her constituents. In the case of service responsiveness, the representative works to provide benefits for individual constituents or groups, ranging from tours of Congress to intervention with a government agency on a constituent’s behalf. In the case of allocation responsiveness, the representative serves the constituency by “bringing home the bacon,” including tangible, pork-barrel projects such as new highways. S ymbolic responsiveness involves less tangible efforts by the representative to gain constituents’ trust. A related notion is mirror representation, in which the representative shares salient characteristics with the constituency, such as race or gender. The value of mirror representation rests on the presumption that, for instance, an African American legislator can better understand and speak for the needs of African American constituents than a white legislator can (Pitkin 1967). This assumption helped lead to the creation of majority-minority legislative districts under the Voting Rights Act beginning in the 1980s.
The term constituency can also refer to the supporters of a public figure or the clientele of a business or interest. A prospective Senate candidate might direct his or her appeals to a national constituency of campaign contributors or to a specific group such as gun rights enthusiasts. Even an unelected public official, such as a bureaucrat working for the National Labor Relations Board, may well make decisions with the concerns of organized labor or small business owners in mind. Or a newspaper might change its format in order to expand its appeal to a local constituency of readers.
Democratic nations vary a great deal in constituency size and in the way constituencies are represented. For example, British Members of Parliament (MPs) have, on average, only one-seventh as many constituents as do American members of Congress, and MPs’ constituencies tend to be much smaller geographically. However, constituency representation in the American Congress has traditionally focused more on service and allocation than is the case in Britain, despite the greater size of U.S. congressional constituencies, due to the American constitutional emphasis on separation of powers and federalism, which inhibits the development of stronger national political parties. Thus, members of Congress have greater independence from their parties, and consequently a greater need for a personal tie with constituents than do MPs. In recent years, however, personal ties have become more characteristic of the MP-constituent relationship (Cain, Ferejohn, and Fiorina 1987).
The power of a constituency to elect its representatives is central to the working of a democratic system, in that it offers the potential for popular control over government. The existence of that control in practice may be limited by several factors, however. Constituents have been found to gather relatively little information about public policies and the behavior of their representatives. Furthermore, the vote frequently fails to convey specific sets of instructions from constituents to their elected representatives as to what actions to take—especially in American elections, which are regularly scheduled and therefore do not necessarily occur at a time of special relevance for a particular issue. To communicate specific concerns, constituents can lobby their representatives through letters and e-mails, campaign contributions, protests, interest-group and party activism, media ads, visits to legislators, and testimony given to congressional committees—all costly to constituents in time, effort, and money.
Despite these very real limits on the ability of constituents to control their elected officials, the existence of a constituency with the power to select its representatives is nonetheless one of the most important checks on government power. Constituents also serve as the support for political parties and interest groups, two of the other primary restraints on government.
SEE ALSO Authority; Campaigning; Democracy; Elections; Fenno, Richard F.; Gerrymandering; Interest Groups and Interests; Lobbying; Pitkin, Hanna; Political Parties; Political Science; Representation; Voting Patterns; Voting Rights Act
Cain, Bruce, John Ferejohn, and Morris Fiorina. 1987. The Personal Vote: Constituency Service and Electoral Independence. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Eulau, Heinz, and Paul D. Karps. 1977. The Puzzle of Representation: Specifying Components of Responsiveness. Legislative Studies Quarterly 2 (3): 233–254.
Fenno, Richard F., Jr. 1978. Home Style: House Members in Their Districts. Boston: Little, Brown.
Pitkin, Hanna. 1967. The Concept of Representation. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Marjorie Randon Hershey
con·stit·u·en·cy / kənˈstichoōənsē/ • n. (pl. -cies) a body of voters in a specified area who elect a representative to a legislative body. ∎ chiefly Brit. the area represented in this way. ∎ a body of customers or supporters.