Message to Lawmakers: Say What You Really Think

A new study shows that when legislators make their stance on even controversial issues public, they convince people to join their side.
by | December 2014
Utah state Sen. Curt Bramble
Utah state Sen. Curt Bramble was easily re-elected after sponsoring an unpopular immigration bill. CurtBramble.org

Want to convince constituents about the wisdom of your position on a controversial issue? Let them know about it.

MORE: Read the rest of the December issue.

That’s the lesson from a recent study from the University of California at Berkeley and Washington University in St. Louis. A pair of political scientists asked a group of legislators in the Midwest to send out letters informing voters of their stances on certain issues. Even though some of them were controversial, such as decriminalizing marijuana and allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, before-and-after polling of their districts showed that their letters moved public opinion in their favor.

It wasn’t by any huge amount -- roughly 5 percent. But not only did they convince some people, the lawmakers’ favorability ratings weren’t hurt at all, even among people who still disagreed with them. “The legislators were pleased,” says Daniel Butler, a Washington University political scientist. “They want to be upfront and advocate for positions they care about.”

Legislators will tell you that writing letters is fine, but communicating with voters -- and maybe shaping constituent opinion -- takes a lot more than that. There’s no silver bullet, but rather a combination of communication strategies that’s most effective. North Carolina legislators are generally restricted from sending out issue letters except in response to constituent queries. State Rep. Tom Murry says that makes it more important to use every tool at his disposal, whether it’s engaging through social media, knocking on doors or strolling along the sidelines at soccer games.

Deb Peters takes a similar approach. As the chair of the South Dakota Senate Appropriations Committee, she’s had to impose some unpopular spending cuts. She explains her reasoning through all possible channels, holding weekly news conferences during sessions, serving on local boards and responding to notes left on her website. “As long as you consistently communicate and you’re open, people understand why you’re making the decision you’re making,” she says.

That’s what Curt Bramble found. The Utah senator helped sponsor an immigration bill a few years back that allowed undocumented workers to earn permits over time. “It was highly controversial, as you can imagine, in a highly Republican district,” he recalls. In fact, about two-thirds of his constituents favored a so-called enforcement-only approach that would have been purely punitive. His own party, at both the state and county levels, passed resolutions calling for his bill’s repeal.

 But Bramble made his case, sending letters to voters and holding town hall meetings. He ended up winning re-election handily the following year. “We moved the dial from 65 percent in opposition to 80 percent approval in polling,” Bramble says. “The way we did that was through very robust communication. We didn’t run away from the bill that we passed, but we made the case with our constituents.”

Plenty of political science evidence suggests that voters, who don’t follow the vast majority of legislative issues all that closely, can have their opinions shaped by the positions taken -- openly and forthrightly -- by elected officials. They won’t always agree, but they do seem to respect politicians who let them know where they stand. It’s a testament to the power of the legislative platform, says Butler, who co-authored the paper with David Broockman of Berkeley.

Bramble says that’s why it makes sense to explain your positions to voters, even if, or maybe especially if, you know they disagree with you. “The underlying common thread is a willingness to be accessible and a willingness to report back to constituents not just what you’ve done, but why you’ve done it,” he says. “Then, even if they disagree with you, there’s a high likelihood they’ll support you.”