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Study: Political persuasion cuts across party lines

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.”

David Lazer is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Computer and Information Science whose research focuses on computational social science, 21st-century democracy, and political networks, among other areas. He is also co-director of the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks. Photo by Brooks Canaday/Northeastern University.

David Lazer is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Computer and Information Science whose research focuses on computational social science, 21st-century democracy, and political networks, among other areas. He is also co-director of the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks. Photo by Brooks Canaday/Northeastern University.

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.”

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