Direct Engagement with Constituents a Plus for Political Leaders

Study finds that online town halls help members of Congress persuade constituents to their policy positions, inspire support at the ballot box, regardless of party affiliation

Kevin Esterling

Kevin Esterling

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Politicians who discuss hot-button issues in online town halls can persuade their constituents about the merits of their positions on policy matters, engender greater trust and approval, and inspire more citizens to vote for them, according to a team of researchers from the University of California, Riverside, The Ohio State University, and Northeastern University.

These online conversations also may encourage greater participation by citizens who care about their government but are turned off by town hall meetings that turn into shouting matches, the researchers said in a paper, “Field experiment evidence of substantive, attributional, and behavioral persuasion by members of Congress in online town halls,” published this week in the online edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“A key finding of the study is that ordinary people who might not show up at a town hall to shout but who care about politics are looking for middle ground and are open to being persuaded to others’ views,” explained Kevin M. Esterling, professor of political science and public policy at UC Riverside. “There are quite a few people who want to be engaged in politics and who want to engage constructively.”

In addition to Esterling, the research team includes the paper’s lead author, William Minozzi, and Michael A. Neblo, political scientists at The Ohio State University; and David J. Lazer of Northeastern University.

The current study is part of a decade-long research project in deliberative democracy funded by the National Science Foundation. “We’re interested in how you design institutions for constructive discourse on policy, and how you get members of Congress to talk to constituents constructively and vice versa,” Esterling said.

Deliberative democracy has two primary goals, he explained. First, bringing people together for discussion about the reasoning behind policy questions and the merits of those positions may enable consensus. Second, even if people don’t reach agreement on an issue they may recognize the merits of differing views and be more willing to consider alternative viewpoints as legitimate.

“Polarization tears a democracy apart,” Esterling said. “When people vilify the views of those who don’t agree it suggests that their involvement in the democracy is not legitimate. That undermines democracy.”

Advances in communications technology create new opportunities for members of Congress to host online town halls that are practical and give more people a chance to participate, Esterling said. In this study, the research team designed two field experiments in which members of the public interacted directly with their members of Congress in online town hall meetings in 2006. Seven Democratic and five Republican members of Congress participated.

Ordinary citizens selected randomly were provided background information to read about immigration policy and the path to citizenship, which was a particularly hot issue in 2006. About half of the participants were chosen to participate in online town halls with their members of Congress.

Although a moderator was assigned to filter out questions posed online that lacked civility, not one offensive question was posed in any of the 20 town halls, Esterling said, which came as a surprise. The researchers found that the tone of the online town halls differed considerably from other forums where members of Congress tended to “throw out red-meat arguments to fire up their base,” Esterling said.

“If you get a representative sample, not intense partisans but ordinary people who are interested in politics, it creates a different dynamic,” he added. “People don’t have their minds made up. They want to hear the reasons behind their representatives’ positions and engage in constructive discussion. That is really important for a democracy.”

Members of Congress participating in the online town halls presented well-reasoned explanations of their positions that persuaded more constituents to move closer to their views, regardless of party affiliation, than the control groups that were provided background information only. Online town hall participants also developed more favorable attitudes toward their representatives and were more likely to vote for them.

The experiment was repeated on a larger scale in 2008 with a U.S. senator, with similar results.

One surprise, Esterling said, was how persuasive members of Congress were, including those whose policy positions differed significantly from those of the political scientists conducting the study.

“It’s remarkable how effective they were about persuading us as political scientists,” he said. “People have negative view of members of Congress. The ones who were in our study were quite impressive and articulate. Every single one had clear and well-articulated views to justify the positions they took on policies they were talking about. Members of Congress are impressive and smart people, and that’s not the impression a lot of us get from reporting we see in newspapers.”

The research project was funded by National Science Foundation Grant IIS-0429452, with support from the Ash Center for Democratic Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School and the nonprofit, nonpartisan Congressional Management Foundation.

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