How Do Citizens React When Politicians Support Policies They Oppose? Field Experiments with Elite Communication*

Abstract


Politicians have been depicted as, alternatively, strongly constrained by public opinion, able to

shape public opinion if they persuasively appeal to citizens’ values, or relatively unconstrained

by public opinion and able to shape it merely by announcing their positions. We conduct unique

field experiments in cooperation with legislators to explore how constituents react when

legislators take positions they oppose. For the experiments, state legislators sent their

constituents official communications with randomly assigned content. In some letters, the

representatives took positions on salient issues these constituents opposed, sometimes supported

by extensive arguments but sometimes minimally justified. Results from an ostensibly unrelated

telephone survey show that citizens often adopted their representatives’ issue positions even

when representatives offered little justification. Moreover, citizens did not evaluate their

representatives more negatively when representatives took positions citizens opposed. These

findings suggest politicians can enjoy broad latitude to shape public opinion.


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University of California Berkeley

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