Social Pressure: A GOTV tactic for the little guy

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How small campaigns can understand and use social pressure


Mail campaigns have their own set of problems and the first one is usually a shortage of cash.

These efforts often do not have the money to communicate effectively with every voter, and spending money on voter turnout can be a bad idea, especially if you have a president, governor, senator or even a contested congressional race above you on the ballot.

For candidates at the bottom, trying to push voters to the polls by spending a lot of money can simply be a gigantic waste.

But sometimes small campaigns face a different situation. You may be running for local office but you are at the top of the ticket or close to it. The turnout will be low —25 percent, 15 percent or even 5 percent. In this situation, turnout can be unpredictable.

Many of the voters who actually cast ballots are there because they care about a particular candidate or campaign. So if you are a small campaign, facing a low turnout election, how do you get your supporters to vote?

Today, there is a mountain of research about what works and what doesn’t in GOTV. Parties, nonprofits and academics have conducted “control group experiments” to measure whether a particular tactic works. So if you want to know whether an Election Day call will increase turnout, you take a universe of 20,000 voters and randomly divide them into two groups—10,000 get the calls, 10,000 don’t.

 After the election you look at the turnout in each group. If the voters who got the call turn out in higher numbers than the ones who don’t, then your calls worked. If turnout is the same, they didn’t.

These experiments have taught us some clear lessons. First, door-to-door canvassing is especially effective. Second, phone calls can work, especially if you use volunteers who can have a real conversation with the voter on the other end of the line.

But here’s the problem: Door-to-door canvassing might reach10 percent of your target audience, and phone calls seldom reach more than 25 percent. Keep in mind that you won’t have phone numbers for everyone.

The one method that can reach just about all of your targets is mail. Unfortunately, in early GOTV tests, the mail did little to move voters to the polls. Mailers that contained headlines like “Do your civic duty!” and “Election Day Reminder!” simply had no effect.

After a number of tests, it was looking like mailing voters to generate turnout was a waste of money. Then in 2006 a Yale professor named Alan Gerber partnered with a Michigan voter file expert named Mark Grebner to change how mail is used in voter turnout campaigns.

Gerber and Grebner experimented with three forms of “social pressure” mailings. One showed voters the voting records of their neighbors. Another mailed voters their own voting records. A third approach simply told voters they were going to be part of study to understand voter turnout and that the study would look at whether or not they voted after the election. All three tests lifted turnout by at least 2.5 percentage points.

The lesson? Knowing that others could look at your voting record caused voters to go to the polls. When it comes to voter participation, vanity works.


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