Lobbying and Influencing Elected Officials
Elected officials are crucial for passing policies that enact social change, securing resources for social movements, swaying public opinion, and legitimizing and supporting progressive organizations.
Although the amount of money in politics has discouraged many activists from attempting to reach out to their policymakers, many studies have shown that community members have a large impact on officials.
One study of 41 offices of the U.S. House of Representatives asked legislative staff to list their main constituent groups. The study found that most legislative staff can only remember a handful of constituent groups, and no staff members were able to correctly remember more than 75% of their constituent groups. Which constituent groups were consistently remembered? Those who contact the office regularly by mail, phone, or in-person visits. Staff and officials do try to take their constituents’ needs into account when making decisions, but if you are not in regular communication with them, they will likely forget about you. Staying in touch can keep you and your issues at the forefront of your officials’ minds.
Another study randomly assigned all members of both houses of the Michigan legislature to either receive calls from constituents on an issue or to receive no calls. The study found that legislators who were contacted by constituents were 12% more likely to support the relevant legislation. Lobbying works—so contact your officials and encourage other progressives to do the same!
The Congressional Management Foundation has been surveying congressional staff members for over a decade in order to help individuals learn how to best communicate with their elected officials. Their most recent report (2017), Citizen-Centric Advocacy: The Untapped Power of Constituent Engagement, provides detailed information and case studies on how individuals can have the most impact on their Congress members. While we summarize the report below, we recommend reading the entire report if you’re interested in learning more about lobbying. The report can be found for free at the Congressional Management Foundation’s website, available at: http://www.congressfoundation.org
The most effective strategies for influencing elected officials include:
- Contact all your representatives
- Make personal connections
- Communicate using values-based messages
- Make specific requests based on local impacts
Contact all your representatives
Contacting the all of the elected officials, Republican and Democrat alike, in your district frequently is key to getting your organization’s issues on the political agenda.
Research has shown that people tend to only contact policymakers who are of the same political party. This is problematic because a survey of almost 2,000 U.S. legislators found that both Democrat and Republican policymakers tend to overestimate the number of conservatives in their districts by up to 20%, likely due to a small number of outspoken conservatives contacting elected officials frequently.
Thankfully, the number of progressive individuals contacting their elected officials has skyrocketed in the past few years. You can join this historic shift by reaching out to all of your local officials and making sure they know that their constituents stand for progressive issues and causes. Be sure to only contact those within your district—it is widely accepted that elected officials try to take only their constituents’ needs into account when making decisions.
Make personal connections
One of the most common ways people contact their representatives today is through copy-and-paste emails or signing their name on an online petition. Unfortunately, these are some of the least effective ways of influencing elected officials. Studies have found that generic messages, such as mass copy-and-paste emails and pre-recorded phone messages, are not very useful in swaying elected officials. Personally writing your own emails, letters, and social media posts and making personal phone calls are much more effective at influencing policymakers.
In a survey of congressional staff, the Congressional Management Foundation asked what constituents can do in order to influence elected officials’ decisions. The most influential forms of contact include in-person visits, contact from constituent representatives (such as local associations, nonprofits, and companies), personalized emails and letters, local editorials, comments during town halls, personalized phone calls, letters to the editor, visits from lobbyists, and social media posts directed at the congressional office.
It’s also important to remember that building a relationship with the office of your officials and its staff members can greatly increase your impact, as staff members help inform elected officials and carry out many of the important tasks related to decisions. Getting to know Legislative Assistants, District Directors, and State Directors can help you build a better relationship with your Congress members.
Communicate using values-based messages
A food bank in Fresno, CA had great success using values-based messaging tailored to their elected officials. They were working to secure more funding for produce at their food bank and to get the CalFood program to use California-produced food. The food bank successfully persuaded their primarily conservative state legislators to support their cause by framing the issue in Republican values. They emphasized the positive local economic impact of food banks and framed their cause as an economic stimulus that would support the local economy. As a result of their work, their officials approved the use of California-produced food in the CalFood program and designated $2 million of the state budget for food banks to purchase California-grown food.
Make specific requests based on local impacts
Constituents often fail to persuade their elected officials when they are either underprepared or overprepared. Vague, partisan appeals to support progressive policies from clearly uninformed individuals often fall flat. On the other hand, individuals and groups that send along multiple-page reports with detailed background information and dense analyses of multiple issues often overwhelm policymakers.
In order to have the most impact, the Congressional Management Foundation (2017) recommends preparing a one-page brief that clearly explains the local impact of the issue at hand. Over 90% of congressional staff say that this information would be helpful to have, but only 9% report that they receive such information on local impacts frequently. Include a couple of simple, clearly stated facts or statistics. One study found that showing Republicans a pie chart or a simple sentence with the statistic that 97% of climate scientists agree that climate change is happening led those Republicans to boost their estimates of the scientific consensus around climate change by 14-30%. Doing your research can really pay off!
If you’re meeting in person, send the brief along before your meeting so your policymaker or staff member has a chance to review it before they talk to you. Briefs should include the following information:
- Clear and specific request for action
- Brief description of the problem
- Facts and statistics on the impact of the issue or bill on the district or state
- Number of constituents affected by the issue
- Local groups affected by the issue
- Estimated economic impact
- Proposed solution or alternative
- Restate your clear and specific request for action
After you’ve sent your brief over for review and you’re ready for your meeting, or if you’re reaching out via a phone call, letter, or email, you can use the following basic outline for communicating with your officials:
- Tell them your name and profession
- Identify where you live to affirm that you are a constituent
- Clearly express what policy or issue you are in support or opposition of
- State how supporting or opposing the policy or issue supports the platform the official ran on or the values of the party the official belongs to
- Do not insult the official’s party or platform—this does not work—find a way to emphasize how your issue supports their values
- Briefly and clearly summarize one or two statistics from non-partisan sources showing the impact of the policy or issue locally
- If relevant, include a story of how the issue impacts you personally
- Make a specific request of the official
- Thank them for their time
By following these strategies, you can greatly increase your influence in politics.
 Broockman and Butler 2017; Campbell 2012; Cress and Snow 2000; Platt 2007; Soule and Olzak 2004
 Bergan 2014; Fitch, Goldschmidt, and Cooper 2017; Jones-Jamtgaard and Lee 2017; Miler 2009; O’Dougherty, Forster, and Widome 2010
 Miler 2009
 Bergan 2014
 Broockman and Ryan 2016
 Broockman and Skovron 2013;
 Killough 2017
 Fitch, Goldschmidt, and Cooper 2017; O’Dougherty, Forster, and Widome 2010
 Bergan 2014; Fitch, Goldschmidt, and Cooper 2017; O’Dougherty, Forster, and Widome 2010
 Fitch, Goldschmidt, and Cooper 2017
 Feinberg and Willer 2015
 Feinberg and Miller 2015; Rogers, Goldstein, and Fox 2018
 Fitch, Goldschmidt, and Cooper 2017
 Fitch, Goldschmidt, and Cooper 2017
 van der Linden, Leiserowitz, Feinberg, and Maibach 2014
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