Politi­cians, not their ads, change vot­ers’ minds

The Welland Tribune - - 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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