While progressive economic policies – such as raising the minimum wage and providing parental leave – often poll well, progressive candidates in the U.S. have rather limited electoral success, said Stanford sociologist Robb Willer in a new working paper published on the Social Science Research Network, a repository and international journal of scholarly research in the social sciences and humanities. Now, Willer along with Stanford sociology doctoral candidate Jan Gerrit Voelkel, have found a possible explanation to this paradox: progressive candidates have not been as successful as their opponents at harnessing values and ideologies that receive broad support from the general public.

Willer and Voelkel ran two experiments with 4,138 people – including one experiment with 1,695 sampled from a nationally representative pool of participants from the National Opinion Research Center’s AmeriSpeak Panel. The sociologists found that when progressive candidates frame their policies with commonly viewed conservative values – such as patriotism, protecting family and showing respect for cultural tradition – as opposed to more liberal values – such as equality and social justice – they receive greater support from conservatives and moderates.

“We find that the values a candidate used to advocate for their policies were more influential on the popular support they received than the policies themselves,” said Willer, a professor of sociology in the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences. “We may underestimate just how much framing matters, often more than the objective features of the thing being framed,” he said.

The study builds off Willer’s earlier research that found the same framing principle can be applied for conservative policies as well. He found that conservative policies can gain greater support among liberals if those policies are framed in terms of values like equality of opportunity, empathy and social justice.

Power of framing

Willer and Voelkel presented study participants with a set of progressive economic platforms from Scott Miller, a hypothetical Democratic candidate running in the 2020 presidential election. Participants were randomly assigned to a condition that framed Miller’s policies in terms of either liberal values, conservative values or technical language (which focused on growth and employment and will be the topic of a separate, upcoming paper).

For example, participants assigned to the liberal values frame read that Miller’s “vision for our country is based on principles of economic justice, fairness and compassion” and that he stands for “economic policies that are based on justice and care, policies that will stop corporations from exploiting working people and pocketing huge profits while offering their workers substandard wages and benefits.”

Participants in the conservative value framing condition read, for example, that Miller’s “vision for America is based on respect for the values and traditions that were handed down to us: hard work, loyalty to our country and the freedom to forge your own path,” and that Miller believes “it is patriotic to put American families ahead of big money donors and special interests.”

In both studies, Willer and Voelkel found that despite Miller’s Democratic party affiliation, when his policies were framed in terms of conservative values, support increased among conservative and moderate participants, relative to when they were framed in terms of liberal values.

Among conservative participants, a conservative value framing – as opposed to a liberal value framing – resulted in a 13-point increase in candidate support on a 100-point scale in the first experiment and a 10-point increase in the second. Among moderate participants, the conservative value framing resulted in a 5-point increase in candidate support on a scale from zero to 100 in the first study, and a 4-point increase in the second experiment, report Willer and Voelkel in the paper.

There was no significant backlash among liberal participants when a progressive candidate framed their policies conservatively compared with when the policies were framed liberally.

Implications for electoral strategies

Willer and Voelkel’s findings suggest that decoupling framing and policy could broaden a candidate’s electoral strategies.

“We take the current alignment of policies and value-based rationales to be inevitable and necessary, but it turns out to be more flexible,” Voelkel said, noting that moral reframing may offer a more effective path to building political consensus than policy compromise. “We often think that moving to the apparent center on policy is a politician’s only means for achieving broader popular support, but this neglects that politicians can also broaden their base of support through the values they employ. However, it is important to emphasize that, as with any effective political tool, the ethical value of moral reframing depends critically on the ends to which it is put,” he said.

The research was supported by the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences at Stanford University, the Schmidt Family Foundation and Grow Progress.