Politicians, not their ads, change voters’ minds
“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.