The Atlantic

The Science of Changing a Loved One’s Vote

The odds of altering the outcome of the election: close to zero. The odds of altering your relationship with your family: much higher.
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Lately, Sunshine Hillygus has been hearing the same question from some of her politically active friends. They’ve been writing postcards to voters in swing states and knocking on potential voters’ doors, but they want to know if they’re channeling their energy toward the right things: What should they be doing, they ask her, if their goal is to influence the outcome of the election?

“The thing that I say,” Hillygus, a political scientist at Duke and the co-author of the book The Persuadable Voter, told me, “is that you can have the biggest impact by contacting people that you know.” Biggest, of course, is a relative term—the results of the election will not hinge on one changed vote—but, Hillygus says, people are generally more receptive to appeals from those they know and trust.

This month, I interviewed more than 20 people who had tried to convince a family member to vote for a particular presidential candidate, or to vote at all, in the 2020 election. Their tones and approaches varied, and so did their results: I heard from a woman whose grandparents met her tearful plea with cold indifference, as well as from a man whose mom ultimately caved because this year, his birthday falls on Election Day.

Every relationship has its own particular dynamics, but there are some basic principles of persuasion that apply whether a message is delivered by a family member or a television ad. One crucial factor is “the amount of careful thinking that the recipient does about the content of the message,” Jon Krosnick, a professor of communication, political science, and psychology at Stanford University, told me. When presented, for example, with five reasons to vote for a particular candidate, “what I’m going to say [to myself] is, Can I think of reasons And if I can’t, that’s the situation in which persuasion tends to happen,” Krosnick said. This presupposes that they have the bandwidth, background knowledge, and motivation to engage in “careful thinking,” which is necessary for a “lasting, meaningful change” to a political opinion.

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