How Leaders Persuade: Field experiment evidence of substantive, attributional, and behavioral persuasion by members of Congress in online town halls
Do leaders persuade? Social Scientists have long studied the relationship between elite behavior and mass opinion. However, there is surprisingly little evidence regarding direct persuasion by leaders. Here we show that political leaders can persuade their constituents directly on three dimensions: substantive attitudes regarding policy issues, attributions regarding the leaders' qualities, and subsequent voting behavior. We ran two randomized controlled field experiments testing the causal effects of directly interacting with a sitting politician. Our experiments consist of 20 online town hall meetings with members of Congress conducted in 2006 and 2008. Study 1 examined 19 small meetings with members of the House of Representatives (average 20 participants per town hall). Study 2 examined a large (175 participants) town hall with a senator. In both experiments we find that participating has significant and substantively important causal effects on all three dimensions of persuasion but no such effects on issues that were not discussed extensively in the sessions. Further, persuasion was not driven solely by changes in copartisans' attitudes; the effects were consistent across groups.