Politicians have power to change voters’ minds, study shows

Legislators can take controversial stands without fear of voter backlash

Politicians who take a stance on tax increases, immigration reform, marijuana legalization and other controversial issues have the power to sway voter opinions in their favor and can do so without fear of backlash, according to new research from Washington University in St. Louis and the University of California-Berkeley.


“This study highlights the special responsibility that public officials have to be leaders for issues and positions that they believe in,” said Daniel Butler, PhD, associate professor of political science in Arts & Sciences at Washington University 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.”

Co-authored with David Broockman, a political science researcher at Berkeley, the research is based on a novel 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 said, 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 U.S. Congress,” Butler said.

What’s most encouraging, Butler said, is that eight state legislators chose to be part of a study where 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 said.