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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

GOTV Strategy: The Personal Touch

To further the exploration of ideas for increasing voter turnout noted in J.P. Green’s TDS post yesterday, check out Harold Meyerson’s American Prospect review article about a new book of interest, “Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout” by Yale poly sci proffs Donald P. Green and Alan S. Gerber. As Meyerson explains, the authors, who tested numerous GOTV tactics, conclude that personal contact, including door-to-door canvassing, trumps other approaches, when it comes to getting rv’s to cast ballots.

What Green and Gerber have done would seem conceptually obvious–except, no one has done it before. Working with academic colleagues and a range of political and civic groups and campaigns across the nation, they ran more than 100 experiments in elections over the past decade, testing which get-out-the-vote tactics–direct mail, phone banks, door-to-door canvassing, radio and television ads–actually turned out more voters. They designed all manner of GOTV efforts and employed them on groups of randomly selected voters while not employing them on a control group of other randomly selected voters, then checked after the election to see who’d voted and who hadn’t, and whether those results had any correlation to the respective GOTV drives. They worked with nonpartisan good-government groups, with groups trying to mobilize African American, Latino, low-income, or environmentally inclined voters, and occasionally, and, remarkably, with candidates’ campaigns–remarkably, because not many candidates will respond favorably to establishing a control group of voters who don’t get canvassed or phoned or mailed on his or her behalf.
…Green and Gerber are concerned simply and totally with the actual electoral system we have saddled ourselves with, and their goal, as they put it, is to produce a “shopper’s guide” for candidates pondering whether to use robocalls or canvassers. The great question they hurl at the reader in their very first sentence bears no trace of the controversies over postmodernist theory: “What are the most cost-effective ways to increase voter turnout?”
…the sheer number and scale of the experiments they’ve run make Get Out The Vote a signally important tool to campaigners trying to figure out how best to campaign. It is also a signally important challenge to portions of the political- consulting industry, most particularly those consultants whose GOTV campaigns rely on recorded phone calls, paid phone bankers, or typical direct mail.
What Green and Gerber have found, in brief, is that the personal touch matters. “Door-to-door canvassing by friends and neighbors is the gold-standard mobilization tactic,” they write. It’s the contact itself that’s the key: the kind of message that the canvassers delivered–whether they handed voters a position paper or a potholder–in itself had no effect on turnout rates. Phone banks staffed by genuinely enthusiastic and chatty volunteers worked as well.

Gerber and Green’s book undoubtedly has more to say about advertising choices, and sounds like a must-read for GOTV organizers.

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