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On the Limits of Officials’ Ability to Change Citizens’ Priorities: A Field Experiment in Local Politics

  • DANIEL M. BUTLER (a1) and HANS J.G. HASSELL (a2)

We test whether politicians’ communications shape their supporters’ policy priorities by conducting a field experiment in collaboration with several local elected officials. In the experiment, the officials sent out email messages to the constituents on their distribution lists. Half the constituents received messages where the official advocated for the priority of a given issue, while the other half received a placebo email. We surveyed the constituents one to two months before the message went out and again the week after the official sent the message. The experiment shows that politicians did not change citizens’ priorities in the desired direction. Moreover, citizens who received a message where the official indicated the issue was a priority were not more likely to act when invited to sign a petition on the issue. Elected officials’ ability to shape the priorities of the politically active citizens with whom they regularly communicate is limited and can even be self-defeating.

Corresponding author
Daniel M. Butler is an Associate Professor, University of California, San Diego, Social Sciences Building, 9500 Gilman Drive #0521, La Jolla, CA 92093-0521 (
Hans J.G. Hassell is an Assistant Professor, Florida State University, Department of Political Science, 531 Bellamy Building, Tallahassee, FL 32306 (
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An earlier version of the paper was presented at the Urban Political Economy Conference at Vanderbilt University in March 2017. We thank Marc Meredith and other conference participants for comments. Replication files are available at the American Political Science Review Dataverse:

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