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Under The Microscope: Encouraging People To Vote

“Casting a ballot is the basic act of political behavior in a democracy, and yet political science offered little reason to explain why people would bother when there is no legal requirement” - Sasha Issenberg

In 1998, political scientists Gerber & Green designed a field experiment to measure three motivational tactics on voters for the purposes of GOTV. They decided to use an over-sized postcard arriving by mail, a scripted phone call and a house visit from a canvasser to deliver non-partisan political messages. What they learned from that experiment is as relevant today for campaign managers.

Studying the electorate’s psyche was something that intrigued Gerber & Green in the 90’s. At a time when people were fighting wars all over the world for the right to vote, in the West voter turnout rates were becoming historically low. Examining this phenomenon, they posed a simple question: why don’t people vote?

Voting can sometimes be seen as a chore. Registering, educating yourself on all the candidates and physically going to vote can be seen as a step too far. They may not have been able to pinpoint exactly why individuals vote during an election but they could examine the factors that affected voter participation.

The New Haven Experiment

Gerber and Green used three separate methods to try to influence voter behavior: postal shots, phone calls and doorstep canvassing. The postal campaign used three separate types of messages covering moral imperative, community obligation and the value of the individual vote. Random variations of the messages were sent to 29 of the city’s wards with one ward acting as the control group. Next the focus turned to the scripted phone call but Gerber & Green realized early that people they were ringing simply weren’t interested in discussing voting over the phone. Finally, they employed college students from Yale to go door-to-door to encourage people to get out and use their vote.

In early 1999, Gerber & Green waited for the New Haven electorate to be updated with who had voted the previous November. When the results were in, the outcome was clear. The phone calls showed no influence in getting people to vote. The direct mail program increased the turnout slightly by 0.6 percentage points for each postcard sent. But the real revelation was in the group of voters who were visited by the canvassing teams: they turned out at a rate of 8.7 percentage points higher than the control sample, an impact larger than the margin in most competitive elections.

Gerber & Green concluded the addition of someone at your front door certainly changed whatever internal calculus people used when deciding whether to go to the polls.

Would Social Media Have Worked in New Haven?

Gerber & Green proved numerous times that door knocking was more effective than direct mailing or the phone call when getting people out to vote. But over a decade later, how would social media have worked as a motivational tactic in the New Haven experiment?

There is nothing to suggest that social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook would perform any better or worse than the scripted phone call or the direct mailing tactics. As we saw first hand, Obama used the internet exceptionally well during his ‘08 Presidential bid and again in ‘12 when he ran for a second term. He focused his budget largely on how to capitalize on the amount of people using online social media accounts. Targeting people on Facebook to register for voting cards and spreading pictures of his ground game operation across image sharing sites such as Instagram and Flickr.

Discovering the best way to motivate people to go out and vote was Gerber & Green’s main objective from their 1998 experiment. Finding a balance between your ground game and social media interactions is key to any successful campaign in today's political landscape. If knocking on someone’s door can be as effective as posting them a message on Facebook, why not do one, or even better do both!

This article drew from The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg.

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