Attention Politicians: It's Worth Talking to Your Constituents - Pacific Standard

Attention Politicians: It's Worth Talking to Your Constituents

Real-world experiments show how influential members of Congress can be.
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Longtime Michigan Senator Carl Levin speaking in 2013. (Photo: Jim Greenhill/Flickr)

Longtime Michigan Senator Carl Levin speaking in 2013. (Photo: Jim Greenhill/Flickr)

Your elected officials must be at least somewhat nuanced in the art of persuasion. After all, they did get elected at least once. In fact, according to a first-of-its-kind, real-world experiment, 35 minutes online with your Congressional representative can sway opinions, trust, and even votes.

Political scientists have pondered whether politicians actually have much sway over public opinion for quite a while. Back in the 1970s, researchers thought elected officials had—at best—marginal impact on a voter's political leanings, an idea that's received fresh attention in recent years. Standard theories of voting, meanwhile, take it for granted that voters don't budge in response to politicians. Still, there are plenty of others who think politicians can persuade us, and it's certainly a popular idea among politicos.

Oddly, no one had tested those ideas in a realistic setting before, so Ohio State University political science professor William Minnozi and his colleagues decided to see if they could add some empirical evidence to the conversation. In the summer of 2006, Minnozi and his team convinced 12 members of the House of Representatives to take part in a total of 19 online town hall meetings with their constituents to discuss immigration reform. One then-senator, Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan, also took part in a meeting to discuss terrorism and torture.

All leaders must decide whether it is worth their time to meet directly with their followers, rather than communicate solely via broadcast. Our findings provide reason to think that it is worth it.

These weren't ordinary online town hall meetings, however. Before each meeting, participants read a series of briefing materials drawn from Congressional Research Service and Office of Management and Budget reports. Then, an average of 20 people logged in to the town hall, where their representatives in Congress spent about 35 minutes fielding questions and discussing their own views on public policy. Finally, people took part in an online, undirected discussion for 25 minutes.

Thirty-five minutes with their representative turned out to have a surprisingly large effect on constituents. Compared with a control group that had only read the briefing papers, town-hall participants were 14 percent more likely to agree with their members of Congress on the issues they discussed. Town-hall participants were also 12 percent more likely to trust their representatives, eight percent more likely to approve of them, and 14 percent more likely to report they'd vote for those representatives in the upcoming election. And, though the statistics weren't strong enough to say for sure whether it was a real effect, those who spent time in the town hall were about 10 percent more likely to vote to re-elect their representatives.

"[P]ersuasion is of central importance for leadership for any time or place. All leaders must decide whether it is worth their time to meet directly with their followers, rather than communicate solely via broadcast (e.g., through mass media). Our findings provide reason to think that it is worth it," Minozzi and his colleagues write in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.

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