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Study: Political persuasion cuts across party lines

Photo of David Lazer in his lab

Findings reported in a new paper co-authored by Northeastern Distinguished Professor David Lazer challenge conventional wisdom that politics is all about targeting your base and tiptoeing around the opposition.

New research from North­eastern Uni­ver­sity indi­cates that politi­cians do in fact have the power to per­suade their constituents—but not just those who share their party affiliation.

In a new paper pub­lished Monday in the early online edi­tion of the journal Pro­ceed­ings of the National Academy of Sci­ences, North­eastern Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Polit­ical Sci­ence and Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence David Lazer and his col­lab­o­ra­tors report that con­stituents who par­tic­i­pated in online town halls with their U.S. rep­re­sen­ta­tive or U.S. sen­ator increased their inten­tions of voting for them in an upcoming elec­tion. Also, par­tic­i­pants’ posi­tions on an impor­tant policy issue dis­cussed during the forums moved sig­nif­i­cantly toward the politi­cians’ stance, while the con­stituents rated them as more trust­worthy, qual­i­fied, and acces­sible after par­tic­i­pating in the events.

What’s more, the researchers found that the per­sua­sion was broadly ecu­menical, with mem­bers of Con­gress being roughly as per­sua­sive to con­stituents from the opposing party as those in their own party. There were also ripple effects to that persuasion—namely, that after con­stituents par­tic­i­pated in the town halls, they were more likely to dis­cuss pol­i­tics with others and try to per­suade them to vote for the elected official.

What was par­tic­u­larly inter­esting here is that they were equally per­sua­sive across the board,” said Lazer, who co-​​authored the paper. “They weren’t just per­suading the choir.”

Lazer noted that these find­ings chal­lenge con­ven­tional wisdom that pol­i­tics is all about tar­geting your base and tip­toeing around the oppo­si­tion. “That’s not what you really want in a democ­racy,” he said. “Mem­bers of Con­gress rep­re­sent people in their dis­trict with both sim­ilar and opposing view­points, and our research sug­gests that it is a viable strategy to engage both sides. It’s a good strategy for them and it’s good for our democracy.”

The research, which was funded by the National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion, is the first to examine whether per­sua­sion occurs as a result of direct, inter­per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tion between politi­cians and their con­stituents. Lazer col­lab­o­rated with polit­ical sci­ence pro­fes­sors at Ohio State Uni­ver­sity and the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­fornia, River­side. Their work marks the cul­mi­na­tion of a series of pub­li­ca­tions focused on studying how democ­racy can work better than appear­ances suggest.

As Lazer put it, “We wanted to study democ­racy in a test tube.”

Lazer’s research focuses on com­pu­ta­tional social sci­ence, 21st-​​century democ­racy, and polit­ical net­works, among other areas, and he is co-​​director of the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks.

For this paper, he and his research col­leagues con­ducted two studies. The first, in 2006, included 19 online town halls with a member of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and about 15 to 20 of his or her con­stituents. A total of 12 U.S. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives par­tic­i­pated, five Repub­li­cans and seven Democ­rats. These town halls focused on one spe­cific policy issue: immigration.

The second study, in 2008, fea­tured an online town hall meeting between U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, a Demo­crat from Michigan, and about 175 of his con­stituents. That dis­cus­sion focused on the treat­ment of ter­rorist detainees, specif­i­cally the issues of water­boarding and closing the Guan­tá­namo Bay mil­i­tary prison.

All the town halls were about an hour long, including a lightly mod­er­ated Q&A and an open dis­cus­sion period, and throughout the events par­tic­i­pants across the board demon­strated a high level of civility.

For both studies, con­stituents were ran­domly chosen and com­pen­sated for par­tic­i­pating. The researchers noted that the par­tic­i­pants were not “polit­ical junkies” nor those with an axe to grind—in fact, an analysis found that the par­tic­i­pants were actu­ally more rep­re­sen­ta­tive of eli­gible voters in their dis­trict than were actual voters.

In follow-​​up inter­views, the researchers found a 13.8 per­cent increase in con­stituents intending to vote for their rep­re­sen­ta­tive after par­tic­i­pating in the town hall com­pared to how they felt before­hand. During a final round of inter­views fol­lowing the November elec­tion, they found a 9.8 per­cent increase in those who voted for that person. They found sim­ilar results fol­lowing the larger town hall meeting with Levin: There was a 10.5 per­cent increase in the intent to vote for him shortly after the town hall, and that number increased to 13.1 per­cent after the election.

Lazer noted with interest that the con­stituents’ atti­tudes and behav­ioral changes rel­a­tively remained the same sev­eral months after the town halls. On the whole, he said, the con­stituents reported paying more atten­tion to the upcoming elec­tion as a result of par­tic­i­pating in the town halls.

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),” the researchers wrote in their paper. “Our find­ings pro­vide reason to think that it is worth it.”

-By Greg St. Martin

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