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Gone are the days of targeting broad demographic groups who might swing an election. Now, data analytics and predictive modeling allow us to identify individual voters according to which candidates those voters are likely to support and which issues they’re likely to prioritize.
And in 2016, perhaps no group of issue-voters could be more impactful (or more misunderstood) than environmentalists.
Environmental voters are the great value proposition of 2016.
First, unlike with other political priorities (like economic growth or education policy), there are often clear differences in how candidates (and ballot questions) address environmental issues.
Second, since environmental voters often have such clear choices on their ballots, campaigns and advocacy groups don’t need to persuade environmental voters to vote a certain way; instead, they can just rely on the high likelihood that environmental voters will make the “right” choice. As a result, campaigns can simply focus on turning these voters out. This is a big deal because voter turnout campaigns are much less expensive than voter persuasion campaigns (and they’re certainly cheaper than having to do both voter turnout and voter persuasion).
Finally, contrary to popular thought, there is a huge pool of non-voting environmentalists from which to draw. In fact, at the Environmental Voter Project, we have identified 15.78 million super-environmentalists who rarely or never vote.
Taken together, this means that there is an enormous number of already-persuaded (but non-voting) environmentalists who can be turned out at a relatively low cost. Of course, the devil is in the details, and there are plenty of misconceptions about how best to identify and turn out environmental voters.
When identifying environmentalists, there’s no substitute for a good predictive model built from a data-rich voter file. Working with Clarity Campaign Labs, the Environmental Voter Project has tested and re-tested our own environmental voter models and found them to be extraordinarily accurate. Other national environmental groups have also built very accurate predictive models.
The problem comes when advocacy groups and campaigns choose to trust their guts — rather than predictive models or other data — because we’ve found that conventional wisdom about environmentalists is almost always wrong.
Perhaps you’ve heard some of these before: environmentalists are all Millennials (wrong), they’re all white people (wrong again); they all vote already (really wrong).
In our September, 2015 predictive model of voters in Massachusetts, we sought to identify registered voters who prioritize climate change and other environmental issues over all other political issues. Although (as with all models) no single data point is necessarily predictive on its own, we found that almost every piece of conventional wisdom was either unhelpful or dead wrong.
For instance, being between the ages of 55-59 had much more “predictive power” when identifying environmentalists than if a voter was in their 20s or 30s. Similarly, we didn’t find any ethnic variables that could predict a voter’s likelihood of prioritizing environmental issues — and recent polling reveals that if any ethnic group prioritizes environmental issues, it’s Latino voters.
Finally, we found that huge numbers of environmentalists usually don’t vote. In Massachusetts, for example, we found 277,250 registered super-environmentalists who didn’t vote in the 2014 gubernatorial election — a number that represents almost 13 percent of overall voter turnout in that election.
The data points that did hold predictive power were often just as surprising and even a bit odd. For instance, where consumer data revealed that a voter enjoys watching basketball or autosports, we saw a strong correlation to that voter also caring about environmental issues. We also found strong correlations with voters who purchase wireless products or support gun control measures.
This doesn’t mean that environmental groups should now target NASCAR dads who buy iPhones. It just means that no one should assume that they know what an environmentalist looks like. And if you can’t afford a good predictive model, you might be turning out the “wrong” voters if you just blindly accept conventional wisdom about who is and isn’t an environmentalist.
Getting environmentalists to vote.
Once you’ve properly identified your environmental voters, it is then just as risky to accept conventional wisdom about how to get them to vote.
Reams of recent GOTV studies have shown that politically-agnostic “expressive-choice” messaging is often much more effective than trying to convince someone to vote based on an issue they care about. Nevertheless, the temptation for environmental groups to “talk to environmentalists about the environment” is so great that many advocacy groups continually fall prey to this conventional wisdom in their GOTV campaigns.
Until recently, most campaigns assumed that voting was a rational decision made by self-interested individuals after a cost-benefit analysis. Essentially, we assumed that someone would vote if they expected the benefits of voting to outweigh its costs. This is often referred to as “rational choice theory.”
The problem is that voting isn’t a rational decision made after a cost-benefit analysis. In fact, as political scientists love to point out, there’s a higher likelihood of someone being hit by a car on the way to their polling place than there is of that person’s vote affecting the outcome of an election.
A revealing proof point of this concept are the GOTV studies showing that if you tell voters that turnout will be low, which, of course, means that their vote has a higher likelihood of making a difference, not only does it not increase voter turnout, but it may even depress turnout, particularly with infrequent voters.
None of this is terribly new information, but the problem is that we often toss these findings out the window when trying to mobilize issue-voters. We blindly assume that talking to environmentalists about the environment must be the best way to get them to vote. But we’re wrong – we’re mistakenly assuming that we can get someone to vote by explaining the beneficial outcomes of voting. That doesn’t work.
Instead, if you view voting as a way that people express themselves, it often reveals far more effective GOTV messages. Plenty of sophisticated campaigns have now embraced social pressure (reminding people that their voting records are public information), peer pressure (stressing that voter turnout is expected to be high), or appealing to the desire to follow through on one’s commitments (reminding people of their previous pledges to vote). Some of these techniques are proven to increase turnout by as much as 8 percent.
At our firm, where we focus only on turning out non-voting environmentalists, we’ve also found that this type of GOTV messaging has a profound effect on voter turnout. Just this past March, we found that a combination of voter pledges and social pressure mail increased turnout by 5.1 percent in a randomized control trial of non-voting environmentalists — and this outcome included a large number of voters who never received our treatments because canvassers couldn’t reach them. Alternatively, we’ve found that stressing the environmental importance of an upcoming election has absolutely no impact on turnout whatsoever.
These results are important only in that they reveal that environmentalists are no different than any other voters. The best way to turn out environmentalists is not to talk about the environment, but rather to use the issue-agnostic messaging that we already know works extraordinarily well with all voters.
For a community that often celebrates science, we in the environmental movement have been slow to accept it into our GOTV campaigns. But we can no longer afford to trust our guts – we need to let big data and behavioral science find our people and lead them to the polls.
Nathaniel Stinnett is the founder & CEO of the Environmental Voter Project, a non-partisan nonprofit using cutting-edge technology to identify non-voting environmentalists, register them, and get them to vote.