November 1 2012
The Higher Road in Public Persuasion
It's not your imagination; you really are being bombarded with negative campaign ads. A stunning $42 million has been spent in Colorado on television ads on the presidential race alone.
Scare tactics work. Campaigns wouldn't waste time demonizing opponents if there weren't dividends at the ballot box.
Research is showing, however, that campaign commercials aren't the only way to influence Americans' political preferences. In fact, a person's economic literacy is heavily linked to his or her support for political ideas and candidates. Moreover, when people gain knowledge about key facts, their preferences have been shown to change. Those who are interested in more than just the outcome of any particular election should take note: A television ad with a grainy, unattractive snapshot, brooding music, and a plea to "Call Candidate X and tell him to stop being evil" may get immediate results, but it is unlikely to yield long-term benefits in influencing how people approach political issues and elections generally.
That's the conclusion reached by the Independent Women's Voice (IWV), an educational advocacy organization that has been investigating the relationship between economic literacy and policy preferences. Here's how the IWV recently tested this theory in Colorado: IWV surveyed 800 registered independents on their economic literacy. They were given true-or-false questions such as, "The national debt of the United States is greater than $16 trillion," and, "The top five percent of income earners in the U.S. pay 60 percent of all federal income taxes collected." In both of these examples, the answer is "true," according to government sources.
IWV's sister organization, Independent Women's Forum, then conducted a one-week educational initiative using mailers, phone quizzes, and Internet outreach to 20,000 independent Coloradans. None of the materials mentioned a candidate or a political party, and the message was crafted for independents, since research shows that how information is presented is critical to making information stick and building economic literacy. IWV followed up with a second survey to assess the education campaign's impact.
The results are fascinating. Take, for example, the question regarding the tax burden of the top 5 percent of American income earners. About half of all of the participants in the original survey answered correctly. Getting this question right was heavily correlated with one's political preference: Only 26 percent of Barack Obama supporters knew the correct answer compared to 66 percent of Mitt Romney supporters. On the question about the share of income taxes paid by the bottom half of earners (3 percent), the results were more pronounced: 76 percent of Romney supporters answered correctly compared to just a quarter of Obama supporters.
The week-long education effort succeeded in increasing the number of independent voters' economic literacy.
The gains in economic literacy were also associated with a shift in support for a presidential candidate, which at this juncture in the political conversation is the best proxy for overall support for less or more government intervention in the economy. Romney held a 2 percent lead in the first survey and among the control group in the second survey, but an 8 percent lead among those who received information through the education campaign. Again, none of the outreach mentioned a candidate. Learning more about the economy simply encouraged many Coloradans to reassess their political support.
Certainly Americans would benefit from a greater awareness of basic economic facts about the current state of our economy and how the system works. Since knowledge changes political perception, this could change how campaigns reach out to voters. Instead of the low road of a negative propaganda blitz, they might take the higher road of persuasion through real education.
Krista Kafer is director of the Colorado's Future Project.