Politics

Congress can get better marks with nonpartisan forums, study shows

The Capitol Dome is covered with scaffolding for a long-term repair project.

J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

The Capitol Dome is covered with scaffolding for a long-term repair project.

A new study analyzing how people are influenced by members of Congress indicates a nonpartisan dialogue about controversial issues like immigration can have a powerful effect on voters.

“Basically, we wanted to see what impact being in an online town hall would have on constituents and what in particular moved attitudes toward the member of Congress,” said David Lazer, coauthor of the study and professor of political science at Northeastern University.

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The first-of-its-kind study, published online last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed members of Congress were able to persuade constituents to adopt viewpoints closer to their own after the online question-and-answer sessions.

Researchers set up an online forum where participants could type in questions or comments to a member of Congress. The members responded through a telephone linked to a computer. Constituents would then get their answers by either listening over their computer speakers or reading a live transcript of the dialogue.

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The Congressional Management Foundation in Washington, D.C., recruited 12 representatives and one senator to participate in the study. Hundreds of their constituents were selected at random and surveyed before and after the town hall meetings. The sessions were held in 2006 and 2008.

By the end of the forum, constituents viewed members as more sympathetic figures. The online interaction also produced lingering effects: Months after the study, constituents were 10 percent more likely to vote for the member, including instances where Democrats supported voting for Republicans and vice-versa.

“That is a big difference,” Lazer said. “That can easily make the difference between winning and losing a group in an election.”

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Only 38 percent of participants in the study said they trusted members of Congress to do the right thing before the online meeting. That number jumped to 52 percent after talking through the issue with a member of Congress.

The approval rating likewise jumped — from 20 percent to 58 percent — on a question about the handling of immigration.

Lazer and his fellow researchers believe there are caveats to producing similar results: Politicians have to use a nonpartisan meeting format and focus on one topic. The first group of 19 town halls only focused on immigration. The second group of meetings discussed terrorist and detainee policy.

“Most televised town halls don’t do that,” said Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation. “It’s usually the Wild West. Chaotic.”

The multiyear study was undertaken by researchers at Northeastern University, Ohio State University, the University of California-Riverside, and Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Representative Michael Capuano of Somerville said he was not surprised by the results of the study he participated in almost nine years ago. It only confirmed a belief he shares with any new legislator he meets.

“The lesson I have been telling them is to stay close to your constituents and ignore the pundits,” he said. “I also tell members that you have to get out from behind your desk and talk to people. I look at it as Politics 101.”

Lazar said he hopes the results of the persuasion study will promote the idea of an alternative dialogue on the campaign trail.

“I hope the lesson is that they should reach out to citizens across the board, to talk to them about the issues of the day,” Lazer said. “The members who participated, every single one of them, found it to be useful. But I think it was more useful than they realized.”

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