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When lobbyists and legislators socialize, lobbyists are more likely to get what they want

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/12/2022 Sara Sadhwani, Pamela Lopez, Christian Grose, Antoine Yoshinaka
Snow covers the top of a statue in front of the Capitol this month. © Ting Shen/Bloomberg News Snow covers the top of a statue in front of the Capitol this month.

Stories of lobbying often conjure up images of well-heeled lobbyists roaming the halls of Congress. But as reports of Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s globe-trotting fundraising trips this fall suggest, lobbying often takes place off Capitol Hill. Whether it’s a cozy dinner at the famed Charlie Palmer steakhouse in Washington, or the hosting of public officials at receptions and bars, lobbying in social situations is a key tool of professional advocates.

But does it work?

In newly published research, we find that interest groups are more likely to get what they ask for when they meet legislators or their staff socially. Much like everyone else, public officials are more easily persuaded in such settings.

Here’s what you need to know.

What is social lobbying?

Social lobbying — while at dinners, receptions, parties and so on — takes place in many settings. To find out how it happens, we surveyed over 6000 registered lobbyists in 10 states, and 316 responded, or about 5 percent, a typical rate. We weighted the survey to be representative of lobbyists across states.

We asked them how they lobby elected state representatives. As you can see in the figure below, nearly every professional lobbyist reported having met legislators in their offices, which is hardly surprising. But 90 percent also reported lobbying lawmakers in at least one social setting, such as a coffee shop, bar, or restaurant.

Here’s how we did our research

To explore the impact of social lobbying, we conducted a randomized experiment in the California state legislature. We chose California because of its large and professionalized state assembly and senate. We then worked with a lobbying firm to randomly assign legislators to three groups, and the firm gave us access to the data generated by the experiment.

One group received a lobbying request for a meeting in their Capitol offices. A second group received a request to meet in a local restaurant. The third group, the control group, received no request or contact. Regardless of meeting location, the lobbyist asked the legislator or staffer in the first two groups to do the same thing: Support a state policy and post their support on one of the legislator’s social media platforms. All state legislators were part of the study, but only one-third were contacted as part of the social lobbying group and only one-third were contacted as part of the office lobbying group. Not all legislators who were asked to have meetings complied with the request, though the proportions complying was quite high in both groups.

The legislators reached in social settings more frequently expressed public support for the interest group’s preferred policy than did legislators lobbied in their offices or those in the control group. Specifically, socially lobbied lawmakers supported the policy more than 25 percentage points more often than either the legislators in the control group or those lobbied in their offices.

The social meetings were least effective with legislators who were ideologically distant from the lobbyists’ interest group. Legislators who’d previously taken positions close to the group’s goals were more likely to be activated by the lobbyist’s social ask.

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Why is social lobbying so effective?

At its most basic level, lobbying is a communication strategy. Lobbyists’ goal is not merely to educate a legislator on their preferred policy, but to deliver information in a way that the decision-maker will be receptive. In the office, lawmakers may be pulled in several directions and often interrupted. Social lobbying sets a more casual and relaxed tone. And outside the office, decision-makers may have more time to develop personal ties or to be in a more pleasant mood. Research from social psychology finds that happier moods seem to lead lawmakers and staff to be more receptive to persuasion and more willing to comply with a request.

In short, lobbyists use the social setting to signal to legislators that their requests are important. That’s because asking someone to give up time in the office suggests that both the lobbyist and the legislator are making a commitment to the discussion.

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Implications for democracy

To influence public policy, advocates can learn from our research. We show that an effective interest group strategy is to have face time in a comfortable and social environment. Social lobbying is a common strategy that political scientists have ignored.

Social lobbying complicates political scientists’ ability to fully account for the panoply of strategies used by interest groups. Political scientists usually focus on campaign contributions and other forms of lobbying, although a face-to-face social meeting is one of the most effective strategies.

Yet social lobbying happens in places the public can’t easily observe. And ordinary citizens — those the legislators represent and to whom they are meant to be accountable — rarely have the opportunity to socialize with their legislators to voice their concerns. Social lobbying’s effects may not fully be recorded by existing sunshine laws intended to reveal influences on government policy; for instance, campaign finance reports can’t meaningfully record anything about lobbying beyond documenting the flow of contributions into campaign accounts

As the new year gets underway for Congress and state legislatures, expect the hottest ticket in capital cities to be in the bars, restaurants and social settings around town. Being able to eat, drink and shoot the breeze with legislators outside an office setting can go a long way in helping organized interests get what they want, while potentially leaving voters out in the cold.

Note: This article originally included a misleading explanation of the survey method. It has been updated for clarity.

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Sara Sadhwani (@sarasadhwani) is an assistant professor of politics at Pomona College and a commissioner on the California Citizens Redistricting Commission.

Pamela Lopez is a partner at K Street Consulting.

Christian Grose (@christiangrose) is a professor of political science at the University of Southern California and academic director for the USC Schwarzenegger Institute.

Antoine Yoshinaka (@ProfPolitiqueUS) is associate professor of political science at SUNY Buffalo.


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