Constituent Communication Through Telephone Town Halls: A Field Experiment Involving Members of Congress

Date01 November 2019
AuthorMichael A. Neblo,William Minozzi,Justin Freebourn,Claire Abernathy,Ryan Kennedy,Jonathan A. Solis,Kevin M. Esterling
Published date01 November 2019
DOI: 10.1111/lsq.12242
Stockton University
University of California, Riversi de
University of Houston
The Ohio State University
College of William and Mary
Constituent Communication Through
Telephone Town Halls: A Field
Experiment Involving Members of
Telephone town halls are an increasingly prevalent method for members of
Congress (MCs) to communicate with constituents, even while garnering popular
criticism for failing to facilitate engagement and accountability. Yet scholars have
paid little attention to the events and their effects, and even less to how they might
be improved. To remedy this problem, we report on a field experiment in which
four MCs joined their constituents in telephone town halls. Overall, participation
in an event improved constituents’ evaluations of the format in general, and of
the MC in particular. Furthermore, we studied how these events might be im-
proved by evaluating a reform—a single-topic focus with predistributed briefing
materials—designed to enhance deliberative interaction. This reform enhanced
effects on opinions of the format without significantly altering effects on atti-
tudes toward the MC. Our results suggest that telephone town halls hold promise
for constituents, officeholders, and democratic practice.
© 2019 Washington University in St. L ouis
[Correct ion added on 23rd May 2019, after firs t online public ation: the order of the las t
three auth ors has been update d, and Jonathan A. Solis’s aff iliation has be en amended
ac cor di ng ly.]
618 Claire Abernathy et al.
The town hall has been a defining feature of American democracy
for centuries. In its ideal form, the term conjures Rockwellian images
of public officeholders standing before their constituents, listening
earnestly, and responding thoughtfully to questions and comments
in a substantive, reason-giving, deliberative exchange. The town hall
is perhaps the most direct way for constituents to provide input on
legislation and hold representatives accountable for their actions.
Members of the U.S. Congress have long held town halls in their
districts, and, whether or not members meet these ideals, the town
hall remains a cornerstone of constituent communication and the
cultivation of legislators’ home style (Fenno 1978).
Technology, however, is changing how members engage with
their constituents (Bimber 2003; Fountain 2001). In particular, mem-
bers of Congress (MCs) increasingly rely on telephone town halls.
A telephone town hall is hosted on a software platform enabling the
MC to dial out to a large volume of phone numbers and host an inter-
active conference call with constituents, potentially vastly more than
could attend an in-person event.1 In principle, therefore, telephone
town halls offer substantially broadened and accessible opportuni-
ties for communication, increasing contact between members and
constituents. And their use is growing. MCs participated in over 300
such events in the first six months of 2017 alone (Bethea 2017).
Despite their increasing prevalence, press coverage of telephone
town halls paints them as frustrating events that leave participants
with poor impressions of their utility for engaging with members
and holding them accountable, core elements of representation.2
For example, in an essay for the New Yorker, Charles Bethea writes
that in a typical telephone town hall, constituents “listen to their rep-
resentative recite talking points from a D.C. office in response to a
small number of accepted, pre-screened questions. Many of these are
softballs” (Bethea 2017). Others characterize the events as not merely
unhelpful, but actively harmful. The Indivisible Project describes
them as “sham” events where members manufacture perceptions
of listening while addressing easy questions from strong supporters.
Indivisible’s website even featured a video of former Labor Secretary
Robert Reich offering guidance on how to disrupt them.3
In contrast to the din of negative popular reports on tel-
ephone town halls, the scholarly literature is most notable for
its near silence on the subject.4 Despite their ubiquity, there is
surprisingly little political science research on town halls of any kind.5
In this article, we focus on how telephone town halls contrib-
ute to representation and, more specifically, ongoing democratic

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