Politicians Are More Persuasive During Interactive Town Hall Meetings

When given a chance at direct persuasion, most politicians are surprisingly good at changing our minds

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Leslie Knope would be so proud: It seems many of us trust our elected officials more when they're given the opportunity to persuade us directly at town hall meetings—even if we're not in the same political party.

In modern politics, TV ads and canned speeches seem to turn off voters and may not change many minds. Instead, when members of Congress conducted interactive online town hall meetings, they proved adept at persuading a wide range of people to trust them, support specific policy issues and even vote for them again, a recent study shows.  

Politicians were so persuasive, at least in part, because participation in the town halls was by invitation and was seen as a personal appeal—which opened voters' minds, says Ohio State University political scientist Michael Neblo. The findings suggest that a gift for personal persuasion is a core component of leadership, and that it can be very effective during direct interactions with voters.

“Even people who didn't ask questions or had their questions answered felt like they were being consulted,” he says. “I think the [fact] that the members wanted to hear from them and be accountable to them just felt very different." This feeling was especially evident in comments collected after the event. "Participants said things like, 'I liked that he was brave enough to skip the infomercial.' They had the sense that another human being was really talking to them and thoughtfully trying to persuade them, rather than employing a cynical attempt to manipulate them by any means necessary."

In a study published this week in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Neblo and his co-authors describe the outcomes of several public events held in 2006 and 2008. Between June and October 2006, Neblo and his colleagues ran 19 online town halls. During each one some 20 constituents met with their elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Twelve members participated in all—seven Democrats and five Republicans.

The authors took pains to create constituent groups that represented the typical citizens of the district rather than just the people who usually take to the polls, a group that tends to be older, better educated and more partisan. Participants were randomly selected and compensated for their time. Neblo says that the town hall format led these constituents to adopt a different listening posture. “This is my elected representative,” he says. “I may disagree, but I want to hear what he or she has to say. And that's a totally different interaction that was really quite remarkable.”

The 19 town hall meetings focused on the immigration policy issue. Members of Congress made their cases, either strongly agreeing or disagreeing about whether undocumented immigrants should be given a path to citizenship. Constituents logged on to each hour-long live session, heard their congressperson speaking, and read a live transcript on the screen. Participants also asked questions, which appeared on the screen along with the member's answers. (There was no live video feed of the lawmakers.) 

In total, more than 500 people met and interacted with sitting members of Congress. After the events, constituents' views shifted closer to those their lawmakers expressed, and their reported intent to vote for their participating representative spiked 13.8 percent. Tellingly, up to four months later, surveys still showed a 9.8 percent increase in the likelihood of voting for the representative—showing that personal persuasion had a long-lasting impact and wasn't just a brief effect of the meeting.

“By and large they were equally persuasive with co-partisan and anti-partisans, and that really surprised us,” Neblo says. “In some cases they were even more persuasive with those opposite-party citizens, because their views might have further to move on a given issue.”

To see if the findings could be replicated on a larger scale, the researchers staged a 2008 study in which Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), now retured, conducted a similar meeting with 175 constituents—and that event generated similar results. Attendees showed a 10.5 percent boost in intent to vote for Levin. People also moved closer to his views on waterboarding, one of the issues related to terrorism that was discussed at his town hall meeting. Intriguingly, follow-up surveys showed that people were less inclined to agree with the senator's views on closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, an issue that wasn’t talked about at the town hall.

The sessions show that citizens who attended the town halls appeared to be open to new arguments and positions from their leaders. That's in refreshing opposition to our view of an increasingly polarized society. “It definitely shows open-mindedness, and constituents approached these things with a different posture than they way they received other political messages.” Ninety-four percent of participants said they enjoyed the online sessions and would participate again—even if they weren't paid.

“There is latent demand for this sort of thing among people who are turned off by traditional modes of political participation, because they feel they are just partisan sound and fury," says Neblo. "They are hungry for something else.” 

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