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Study: Constituents Like Online Town Halls

Constituents who participate in online town halls are more likely to vote for their Member of Congress and approve of his position on the issue discussed than those who don’t participate, according to a study released Monday.

The findings open up a new possibility in the wake of August’s heated town halls on health care reform, where dozens of Members faced angry crowds and where policy questions often become overshadowed by loud accusations. Conducted by the Congressional Management Foundation, the study found that online town halls led to “high quality— discussions that were “extremely popular— with constituents.

“People universally loved this and felt very positively about it,— said Kathy Goldschmidt, CMF’s deputy director. But she added, “We don’t in any way recommend that these are replacements for [in-person] town halls.—

Most Members interact with constituents in person or through telephone town halls, where thousands of constituents can participate and submit questions with the push of a button. The online town halls differ slightly: Instead of asking questions by phone, constituents type them into a prompt box and they are immediately put into the queue. Members’ responses are provided in audio and in a running transcript on the screen. Members can also use PowerPoint presentations to illustrate their points.

In the CMF study, all but one of the town halls had a group of 15 to 20 constituents — far less than the average “tele-town hall.— But researchers say the groups were diverse, representing a wider swath of society than a typical town hall meeting.

Before the town halls, 20 percent of the selected constituents approved of their Member’s position on immigration (the issue discussed in 20 of the 21 town halls); after participating, that number jumped to 58 percent. Moreover, 69 percent of participants voted for their Member, compared with 64 percent of control subjects (constituents who participated in the study but not in the town halls).

Swing voters were affected the most. Constituents who only had a 50 percent probability of voting for their Member jumped to 73 percent after participating in the online town hall.

But whether tele-town halls might produce the same effects is unclear. The study focused exclusively on online town halls, and the bulk of it was conducted in 2006 — before most Members had even heard of tele-town halls. Conducted in partnership with the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government, Northeastern University, Ohio State University and the University of California-Riverside, the study had a total cost of $180,000.

Most of the 13 Members who participated in the study haven’t used online town halls since, though some say they might use them in the future. Austin Weatherford, a staffer in Rep. Mike Conaway’s office, said the Texas Republican is considering using them in the near future, but only if the office can find the technology to stream a Web video of the Congressman answering questions.

“That seems like the future and the best way to do it,— he said. “Right now we do a lot of tele-town halls and those are great, but there is a disconnect because he can’t see them and they can’t see him.—

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said her tele-town halls already use some of the benefits of the online system. Constituents ask questions by phone, she said, but staffers type them into a computer system where Lofgren is also able to see them. One call can attract thousands of constituents, most of whom are randomly called.

“In a way, it’s online because we’ve got staff getting the questions to make sure we’ve got a good mix,— she said. “People love it. The response has been fantastic. It’s cheaper than having little town halls where the same 100 people are coming over and over again.—

Researchers hope to soon compare such telephone systems to online town halls and in-person meetings. But Michael Neblo, one of the study’s researchers, said he already sees some benefits to an online system — among them, the use of a third-party moderator to oversee the process, rather than a staffer. In the CMF study, Members answered constituents’ questions in the order that they were submitted, with some deleted only for repetitiveness and offensiveness.

Furthermore, in-person town halls tend to attract people “who love their Member or are angry about something,— said Neblo, an assistant professor of political science at Ohio State University.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said the office was “considering— trying out online town halls, though Levin hasn’t held one since participating in the study. Held in the summer of 2008, Levin’s online town hall included almost 200 participants; the results, researchers say, were similar to that of the smaller town halls.

But with many tele-town halls reaching upward of 4,000 constituents, CMF officials are eager to do more work.

“We experimented with one format, and we’d like to experiment with other formats,— Goldschmidt said. “Of course, you don’t want to experiment with Members’ constituents too much.—

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