On the Limits of Officials’ Ability to Change Citizens’ Priorities: A Field Experiment in Local Politics

On the Limits of Officials’ Ability to Change Citizens’ Priorities: A Field Experiment in Local Politics

by Daniel M. Butler, University of California and Hans J.G. Hassell, Florida State University 

We test whether politicians’ communications shape their supporters’ policy priorities by conducting a field experiment in collaboration with several local elected officials. In the experiment, the officials sent out email messages to the constituents on their distribution lists. Half the constituents received messages where the official advocated for the priority of a given issue, while the other half received a placebo email. We surveyed the constituents one to two months before the message went out and again the week after the official sent the message. The experiment shows that politicians did not change citizens’ priorities in the desired direction. Moreover, citizens who received a message where the official indicated the issue was a priority were not more likely to act when invited to sign a petition on the issue. Elected officials’ ability to shape the priorities of the politically active citizens with whom they regularly communicate is limited and can even be self-defeating.

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American Political Science Review / Volume 112 / Issue 4 / November 2018

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