Politicians don’t need to hide their views on controversial issues. In fact, taking a stance may have the power to sway voters’ opinions in their favor, new research shows.
“This study highlights the special responsibility that public officials have to be leaders for issues and positions that they believe in,” says Daniel Butler, associate professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis and a lead author of the study.
“It suggests that politicians still hold a position of trust that allows them to reach people and produce change.”
OPINIONS IN THE MAIL
The research is based on an experiment designed to see if voters would change their opinions on a controversial issue after receiving a personal letter from their state legislator.
Researchers surveyed targeted voters to benchmark individual attitudes on various hot-button issues, then surveyed them again after they received one of three official form letters, all of which were sent by the researchers, but appeared to come directly from the legislator.
The first version of the letter included only a broad, generic message with no policy statements, the second included a brief mention of the politician’s stance on a controversial policy issue, and the third offered a detailed discussion of why the legislator favored this position.
The research team’s analysis of the survey data uncovered strong evidence that legislators can significantly shape constituents’ views on issues by merely staking out their positions.
KEY FINDINGS INCLUDE:
Citizens who received letters often adopted their representatives’ issue positions even when representatives offered little justification.
Voters getting a letter laying out their legislator’s disagreements with them were about five percent more likely to change their opinion to agree with the legislator’s stance.
Public officials faced little push back for taking a position that ran counter to constituents’ preferences, regardless of the extent to which legislators provided justifications for their positions. Citizens who received letters from their legislators taking positions that they disagreed with did not evaluate their legislators less favorably.
The findings were surprising, Butler says, because the experiment was based on voter reactions to correspondence from state legislators who are often not well known by their constituencies.
“We would expect even larger effects for officials who are more prominent, such as the president or a member of the US Congress,” Butler says.
TAKING A RISK
What’s most encouraging, Butler says, is that eight state legislators chose to be part of a study in which they sent potentially inflammatory letters to constituents who might be voting for or against them in the future.
“The state legislators we worked with sent letters to the constituents who disagreed with them wherein they highlighted their own positions on the issue of disagreement. Why were they willing to do this?
“Contrary to the narrative we often hear, most legislators care deeply about their constituents and the issues they champion.
“This project was a natural outgrowth of the interest legislators have in building support for the issues they believe will benefit constituents,” Butler says.
David Broockman, a political science researcher at University of California, Berkeley, is coauthor of the paper.
How Do Citizens React When Politicians Support Policies They Oppose? Field Experiments with Elite Communication*, Published on Journal 《OCF,Berkeley.edu》in Sep 9, 2014.