Politi­cians, not their ads, change vot­ers’ minds

The Daily Observer - - OPINION - GRA­HAM THOM­SON gth­om­son@post­media.com

“cam­paigns mat­ter.” it is prob­a­bly the short­est adage in pol­i­tics. and one ev­ery­one takes as gospel. maybe we shouldn’t. We think cam­paigns mat­ter be­cause po­lit­i­cal par­ties can win or lose based on what hap­pens dur­ing the rel­a­tively short pe­riod of an elec­tion cam­paign.

con­se­quently, we think politi­cians are jus­ti­fied in pour­ing money and ef­fort into win­ning over vot­ers.

How­ever, a new mega-study by a cou­ple of amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists is rais­ing doubts about the wis­dom of politi­cians spend­ing so much time and trea­sure try­ing to change the minds of vot­ers.

“Our best guess is that it per­suades about one in 800 vot­ers, sub­stan­tively zero,” con­clude the au­thors, Joshua kalla at berke­ley and David Broock­man at Stan­ford.

“Our ar­gu­ment is not that cam­paigns do not in­flu­ence general elec­tions in any way, but that the di­rect per­sua­sive ef­fects of their voter con­tact and advertising in general elec­tions are essen­tially zero.”

the au­thors of the aca­demic paper looked at the results of 49 field ex­per­i­ments to gauge the per­sua­sive ef­fects of “cam­paign advertising and out­reach through the mail, phone calls, can­vass­ing, tv, on­line ads, or lit­er­a­ture drops on vot­ers’ can­di­date choices.” vot­ers are stub­born and not eas­ily ma­nip­u­lated.

al­though the au­thors looked at amer­i­can pol­i­tics, their con­clu­sions have im­pli­ca­tions here.

if noth­ing else, maybe it will con­vince cam­paign con­sul­tants to tone down the bar­rage of po­lit­i­cal ads.

an­other in­ter­est­ing take-away is that, gen­er­ally speak­ing, peo­ple will change their opin­ion only if a politi­cian they trust changes his or her opin­ion.

Politi­cians, of course, rarely change their stance, es­pe­cially dur­ing an elec­tion cam­paign.

they are more likely to go down with the ship than risk chang­ing course. this helps feed hy­per­par­ti­san pol­i­tics.

con­sider the con­tro­versy over the de­ci­sion by tran­scanada to kill the pro­posed en­ergy east pipe­line, the $15-bil­lion project that would have pumped al­berta oil to new brunswick to be shipped over­seas.

the pipe­line ap­par­ently died from a thou­sand cuts, in­clud­ing a de­pressed price for oil, changes to the fed­eral re­view process, protests from en­vi­ron­men­tal groups, a slow­down in oil­sands growth and a drop in de­mand for pipe­lines.

in its letter to the na­tional en­ergy board, tran­scanada of­fers up a large cast of vil­lains in­clud­ing “the ex­ist­ing and likely fu­ture de­lays re­sult­ing from the reg­u­la­tory process, the as­so­ci­ated cost im­pli­ca­tions and the in­creas­ingly chal­leng­ing is­sues and ob­sta­cles.”

by men­tion­ing the “reg­u­la­tory process,” the com­pany pro­vides am­mu­ni­tion for con­ser­va­tive politi­cians to blame fed­eral lib­er­als and al­berta pro­vin­cial new democrats for killing the project.

but by also blam­ing “in­creas­ingly chal­leng­ing is­sues and ob­sta­cles,” the com­pany is pro­vid­ing am­mu­ni­tion for lib­er­als and new democrats to point to the de­pressed price of oil.

if only politi­cians would ac­cept the other side has a point. con­ser­va­tives would ad­mit the pipe­line didn’t make eco­nomic sense in to­day’s de­pressed mar­ket, while lib­er­als would ad­mit the new fed­eral neb process was the fi­nal straw.

con­sid­er­ing how vot­ers tend only to change their opin­ion when their favourite politi­cians change theirs, maybe this would bring a lit­tle more ci­vil­ity and less par­ti­san bit­ter­ness to our po­lit­i­cal dis­course.

and maybe next elec­tion all politi­cians would need to spend less money on an­noy­ing at­tack ads and cam­paign lit­er­a­ture. they don’t seem to work any­way.

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