Government & Politics

The Secrets of Political Persuasion

Stanford researchers study the various tactics that politicians use to get voters on their side, from “moral reframing” to two-faced deception.

October 21, 2020

| by Steve Hawk


A supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump waits for the start of the president’s campaign rally on the South Lawn of the White House is calling a “peaceful protest.” Credit: REUTERS/Tom Brenner

When it comes to shaping public opinion, sometimes preaching to the choir can be more effective than arguing with the opposition. | REUTERS/Tom Brenner

Stanford GSB professors have performed many studies in recent years on the various techniques that politicians and others use to influence public opinion. We dipped into the Stanford Business Insights archives for four pieces of research that seem particularly relevant during the current, charged election season.

You Might Be Trying to Get the Wrong People to Vote Your Way — or Wear Masks

If you want to be efficient when it comes to influencing others, focus on those who are already (sort of) on your side. “Targeting voters who are already leaning your way but might need a nudge — for example, to actually vote — could be a good way to go,” says Stanford GSB marketing professor Zakary Tormala. “Targeting people leaning the other way may end up being a worse use of resources.”

How Politicians Tailor Their Messages to Appeal to Constituents

If you’ve ever thought politicians have a special talent for telling you what you want to hear, you might be more right than you know. A 2015 study found that politicians often convince voters that they are on the same side of an issue, even if the reality might be quite the opposite.

The Power of Dressing Progressive Economic Policies in Conservative Clothes

When political candidates talk about progressive economic policies in language consistent with traditionally conservative values — such as patriotism, the American dream, family and respect for tradition — they gain support among moderates and conservatives.

Political Machinations: How Candidates Cater to — and Shape — Public Opinion

Four political scientists peel back campaign chicanery and party posturing to show how politicians win elections by crafting their messages, performing acrobatic acts of pandering, and actually changing constituents’ opinions.

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