* Andrew Sullivan highlighted this WaPo WonkBlog post over the weekend, and I thought it was worth sharing. The excerpt is from an interview of Sasha Issenberg, the author of “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns.” Most of the pros here will already know this stuff, but it always helps to repeat it…
Two political scientists at Yale, Donald Green and Alan Gerber, went out and did a field experiment, which was a big deal at the time because political science lagged behind other social sciences in using field experiments to measure cause and effect in elections.
The first experiment was that they created a local GOTV [get out the vote] drive in New Haven and had voters get a reminder from a postcard, a canvasser, or paid callers, and then had a control group, who got nothing. And we learn there that the phone call group had no increase in voting, mail had a small increase, and there was a big boost from the in-person contact. It was hard to get the paper published because they made no theoretical contributions to debates going on in the discipline. It was almost embarrassingly practical. But it was the first time that anyone had developed a method for assessing the effectiveness of anything the campaigns spent money on.
The campaigns went out and did a bunch more of these comparative effectiveness studies, as opposed to mass media, where it’s really hard to isolate voters and implement controls. When you’re measuring turnout and registration rates, it’s very easy to select some people to get your mail. In that case, the dependent variable is whether they voted or registered, which is an easy thing to track. In the last few years it’s moved a lot to the behavioral psychology-informed bent, trying to demonstrate things that have been demonstrated in lab experiments about how to change motivations around voting.
In-person doorstep contact is more effective at mobilizing voters than phone calls. Volunteer phone calls are better than paid phone calls. Voters are able to sense the difference. We know that what people in politics now call “chatty scripts,” where the caller or canvasser is encouraged to have an open-ended back and forth, are much more effective than robotic scripts.
Now there’s been a whole body of work on which types of language are better at getting people to vote. Almost all of them have to do with changing the dynamic around voting. The best messages often don’t have much to do with the candidates or issues but with mobilizing voting and getting people excited for the election. Referring to people as voters has been shown to increase somebody’s likelihood of voting. We have a whole sort of body of research about the contact and the quality of contact that we didn’t 15 years ago.
This is one big reason why Republican candidates in Illinois are often at a disadvantage. They rely too much on robocalls and not nearly enough on in-person contacts. The House Democrats, on the other hand, make sure their candidates walk 40-50 hours a week for months. They have people in the precincts every day, not just bused-in folks for Saturday afternoon blitzes.
* I often tell the story of my paternal Grandmother, a lifelong Democrat. Back in, I think 1959, she met John F. Kennedy at a Teamsters Union event where he put his arm around her, kissed her on the cheek and told my grandfather that he had a beautiful wife. You just couldn’t say a bad word about JFK to her, ever - or a Democrat, for that matter. But Grandma voted for a Republican in a county race years ago because he came to her door and asked for her vote. She had known the Democratic candidate for decades, but he didn’t ask for her vote that year.
There is absolutely no substitute for physically touching voters. And there never will be. Talk all you want about technology. But unless the tech is directly related to helping a physical street canvass, then it’s mostly a waste of money.
And if you can’t touch them, using volunteers to talk with voters is the next best thing. Robocalls are cheap, which is why they’re so over-used. And while they might have an impact at the margins, they’re nowhere near as effective as real people telling real stories about why they are voting for a candidate.
This is one big reason why Joe Walsh was able to ride the Republican wave in 2010 and defeat what many thought was a fairly safe incumbent Democratic congressperson. Walsh had people in the streets. He walked. His people walked. His organization reached out and touched them. He won and blew the establishment’s collective mind. That same year, the Statehouse Democrats held onto their majority by doing the same sort of thing, without the histrionics, of course, but you get the idea.