WASHINGTON, May 28, 2015 — As much as we idealize American democracy as a great exchange of ideas, the uncomfortable reality holds that political campaigns do precious little to change voters’ minds. The best political operatives adeptly portray their candidate the most palatable choice to voter on the issues which already matter to them.
That’s why a political science study showing that in-person, door-to-door canvassers with a personal story to tell could move opinions on same sex marriage was so fascinating. And it’s why the political world is so terribly bummed out now that it appears the whole thing was fake.
The study sent gay canvassers door-to-door in an attempt to convince conservative voters to support expanding definitions of marriage. The data showed that it worked. Opinions on the subject not only moved, but the new opinions did not fade over time.
Much of the ensuing coverage focused on the issue of same-sex-marriage, but the real significance goes a bit deeper. For a time, it looked like the study’s authors — University of California-Los Angeles graduate student Michael LaCour and his co-author, Columbia University professor Donald Green — had given campaigns the road map to a Holy Grail of sorts: systematic voter persuasion.
The most sophisticated campaigns usually don’t bother trying to change voters’ minds on issues. Moving opinions, especially on deeply-held beliefs, seemed to happen over much longer periods of time and include forces outside politics. Candidates deal with the realities of their electorate. In many ways, a campaign doesn’t convince voters to agree with the candidate, but that the candidate agrees with them — and downplays the areas of disagreement. Campaign cycles may seem like they last forever, but it’s far too short a time to convince voters in a rural community of hunters to support gun control, or to generate support for a right-to-work bill in a town with heavy union membership. It’s much easier to find the common ground and promote its importance.
LaCour and Green’s study turned this model on its head — until other researchers determined that the original survey data had been fabricated. (LaCour stands by his results; Green, whose role was more advisory, has called for a retraction.)
The conclusions were easy enough to believe. In fact, they may even be true. It makes perfect sense that a personal conversation with a gay person would affect someone’s thinking on gay marriage. Further, it holds to reason that such interactions would have a more lasting impact. Unfortunately, the study doesn’t prove any of it. Sending people door-to-door requires a heavy investment of time and money that isn’t justified by gut feelings and “common sense” alone.
Expensive though it may be, political organizations shouldn’t stop searching for that Holy Grail of persuasion. Survey after survey shows a polarized electorate, and media consumption studies show that Americans tend to gravitate toward news sources which confirm their biases. (In other words, conservatives tune into Fox News and liberals tune into MSNBC, or CNN, or just about any other mainstream media news source.) If people are not getting a complete message, it becomes the responsibility of third party organizations (campaigns, think tanks, PACs, or bands of activists roaming the countryside) to fill that role. (The recently successful pro-same-sex-marriage campaign in Ireland used the tactics recommended by the study, and they seemed to work fine.)
The research may have been fake, but the LaCour/Green study’s pursuit was important. Civil debate is critical for a democratic government’s survival. Being able to move opinions invites more engagement, more debate, and a healthier democracy.