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

Source: David E. Broockman, Daniel M. Butler, University of California, Berkeley and Washington University in St. Louis right, September 9, 2014

From the Futurity summary:
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.