Login | April 13, 2024

I've found 4 trends in 15 years of studying congressional emails to constituents

LINDSEY CORMACK STEVENS
Institute of Technology

Published: April 2, 2024

(THE CONVERSATION) Republicans in Congress use taxpayer-funded email messages to contact constituents more often, and perhaps more effectively, than their Democratic counterparts.
That's what I've found over 15 years of compiling and analyzing the archive that I call DCinbox, a free and open real-time archive of every official e-newsletter sent by sitting members of Congress to their constituents.
To my knowledge, no other institution – not even the Library of Congress – digitally archives these significant historical government documents whose creation and distribution is funded by the American people. So far, my compilation includes more than 184,000 official e-newsletters, and it grows by about 30 messages each day.
These communications are a way for legislators to present themselves and their arguments directly to constituents, free from the oversight of a newspaper or magazine editor, and in ways that can put additional information just one hyperlink away.
The messages reveal fundamental differences in how each party seeks to connect with and inform their constituents: Republicans prefer visual elements and strategic timing, and Democrats prefer more text-heavy missives.
A public-minded legacy
Direct ways for lawmakers to communicate with the public have a long and democratic history. When the United States was founded, members of Congress were allowed to adopt what had been a common practice in the British Parliament – using taxpayer funds to send informational mailings to constituents. This privilege, called "franking," allowed a senator or representative to sign his or her name on an envelope's top right corner in place of a stamp. There were rules, though – the messages had to be informational, not campaign material or endorsements of other politicians.
In recent years, this practice has evolved into sending constituents email messages from House members' and senators' official email accounts. The rules still apply: Members of Congress who want to send campaign material or partisan political messages must do so from their campaign accounts or personal accounts, not email addresses ending in "@house.gov" or "@senate.gov."
In 2009, I began collecting all of the official messages as a part of dissertation work, with the hopes of creating an archive for researchers to use and to answer my own questions about how legislators would "look" ideologically if all we had to go on were the votes they decided to communicate to constituents. At that time, I had to manually enter my email address into the website of every member of Congress. Now it's easier to keep up, because I just sign up for new members' lists after every election.
For years, I've shared various insights, analyzing word usage, trends in geographical terms and finer bits of information such as how many members of Congress talked about COVID-19 on a given day during the pandemic.
From this work, I have developed a few major insights into how members of Congress use this free perk, offering a better understanding of contemporary political communication tactics. Here are four important points I've learned.
1. Republicans use email more – and with more strategic timing
Over the past 15 years, Republicans have won only slightly more seats in the House and Senate than Democrats. But once in office, Republicans use this email perk far more than Democrats.
In every month I've been tracking these messages – except briefly in the middle of 2010, when Democrats held 59% of all the seats in Congress, and for nine of the 11 months at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and early 2021 – Republicans have sent many more official e-newsletters to constituents than Democrats have.
Republicans also tend to be more attuned to the leisure reading habits of people. They send a greater number of their emails on weekends when people are likely to have weekend time to take them in. Democrats are more likely to send their messages during the work week.
2. Republicans tend to stay on message
Republicans in Congress are more consistent in using key terms and phrases than Democrats.
For example, back in 2023 Republicans were unhappy with Democratic attempts to boost the IRS' efforts to reduce tax evasion. A proposal included the projection that the IRS could hire an additional 87,000 workers over the coming decade. Republicans took to e-newsletters to oppose that move and specifically used that number as a rallying cry.
And in 2022 and 2023, as fentanyl deaths gripped news headlines, multiple Republicans told constituents about how the volume of fentanyl in the U.S. could "kill every single American."
By contrast, Democrats are far less likely to have overlapping term usage or phrasing. That suggests they are not as focused on coordinating constituent communications as Republicans.
3. Republicans also routinely co-opt opponents' words
GOP legislators tend to adopt phrases that originate with policy oriented journalists, academics and protesters on the left into a convenient, and dismissive, shorthand. Terms like "Green New Deal," "critical race theory," "defund the police" and "Bidenomics" are all used commonly in official Republican e-newsletters railing against Democratic policy proposals.
Democrats in Congress didn't have a similar sort of concerted effort to use a Republican-originated word or phrase until 2022, when they began to use the term "MAGA" as a way to tell constituents about parts of the Republican agenda they disagree with. And even then, only 292 e-newsletters from Democrats have used MAGA, while Republicans have sent 1,531 messages deriding the Green New Deal, 496 about critical race theory, 824 with defund the police and 330 saying Bidenomics.
4. Official e-newsletters have changed with the internet
Official e-newsletters have changed over time, as trends of online communication have shifted. But here again, Republicans are ahead of Democrats.
Republicans use more images than Democrats and tend to refer constituents to more media outlets, including those that support right-wing views.
This official e-newsletter archive allows researchers to better understand the evolving nature of online political communications and learn about how the parties use contemporary tools to connect with their constituents. In order for the public and historians to make sense of American politics, I believe it's important to analyze what legislators say when acting in their official capacity.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/ive-been-studying-congressional-emails-to-constituents-for-15-years-and-found-these-4-trends-after-scanning-185-222-of-them-225618.


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