Get Out the Vote!: How to Increase Voter Turnout

Get Out the Vote!: How to Increase Voter Turnout

by Donald P. Green, Alan S. Gerber

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780815796381
Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
Publication date: 03/24/2004
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 128
File size: 569 KB

About the Author

Donald P. Green is a professor of political science at Yale University, where he has taught for more than a decade. An expert on elections and campaign finance, he has written widely on public opinion and political behavior and is coauthor of Partisan Hearts and Minds: Political Parties and the Social Identities of Voters (Yale, 2000). Alan S. Gerber is a professor of political science and director of the Center for the Study of American Politics at Yale University. He has published extensively on campaigns and elections and is coeditor (with Eric Patashnik) of Promoting the General Welfare: New Perspectives on Government Performance (Brookings, 2006).

Read an Excerpt

Get Out the Vote!

How to Increase Voter Turnout
By Donald P. Green Alan S. Gerber

Brookings Institution Press

Copyright © 2004 Brookings Institution Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8157-3268-6

Chapter One

Why Voter Mobilization Matters

The United States has the busiest election calendar on earth. Thanks to the many layers of federal, state, and local government, Americans have more opportunities to vote each decade than Britons, Germans, or Japanese have in their lifetime. Thousands of Americans seek elective office each year, running for legislative, judicial, and administrative posts.

Given the frequency with which elections occur and the mundane quality of most of the contests, those who write about elections tend to focus exclusively on the high-visibility contests for president, senator, or governor. This focus gives a distorted impression of how election battles are typically waged. First, high-profile races often involve professionalized campaigns, staffed by a coterie of media consultants, pollsters, speechwriters, and event coordinators. Second, in order to reach large and geographically dispersed populations, these campaigns often place enormous emphasis on mass communications, such as television advertising. Third, the importance of these races calls press attention to the issues at stake and the attributes of the candidates.

The typical election, by contrast, tends to be waged on a smaller scale and at a more personal level. Few candidates for state representative or probate judge have access to the financial resources needed to produce and air television commercials. Even long-standing incumbents in state and municipal posts are often unknown to a majority of their constituents. The challenge that confronts candidates in low-salience elections is to target potential supporters and get them to the polls, while living within the constraints of a tight campaign budget.

A similar challenge confronts political and nonpartisan organizations that seek to mobilize voters for state and local elections. Making scarce campaign dollars go as far as possible requires those who manage these campaigns to think hard about the trade-offs. Is it best to assemble a local phone bank? Hire a telemarketing firm? Field a team of canvassers to contact voters door-to-door? Send direct mail and, if so, how many pieces of direct mail?

This book offers a guide for campaigns and organizations that seek to formulate cost-effective strategies for mobilizing voters. For each form of voter mobilization, we pose two basic questions: (1) What steps are needed to put it into place, and (2) How many votes will be produced for each dollar spent? After summarizing the "how to do it" aspects of each get-out-the-vote (GOTV) tactic, we provide an impartial, scientifically rigorous assessment of whether it has been shown to produce votes in a cost-effective manner. The chapters that follow cover the staples of state and municipal election campaigns: door-to-door canvassing, leafleting, direct mail, and phone banks. We also discuss some newer campaign tactics, such as voter mobilization through e-mail. The concluding chapter discusses other forms of GOTV activity and the research that is currently under way to evaluate their effectiveness.

Does Voter Mobilization Matter?

The sleepy quality of many state and local elections often conceals what is at stake politically. Take, for example, the 1998 Kansas State Board of Education elections that created a six-to-four conservative majority. This election featured a well-organized campaign that used personal contact with voters to mobilize hundreds of churchgoers in low-turnout Republican primaries. This victory at the polls culminated a year later in a dramatic change in policy. In August 1999, the Kansas State Board of Education voted six to four to drop evolution from science education standards, letting localities decide whether to teach creationism in addition to or instead of evolution. This move attracted national attention and renewed debates about science curricula and religious conviction. But what occurred in Kansas is a story not only about clashing ideologies but also about how campaigns work to get voters to the polls. Very few Kansans changed their mind about the merits of evolution and creationism over the course of the election campaign. What changed in 1998-and in subsequent elections, as countermobilization campaigns caused conservatives to lose their majority-was who showed up to vote.

Although Americans often take a cynical view of state and local elections, supposing that who fills a given office makes no difference, the Kansas example is not as exceptional as it may seem. During the 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down many states' system of legislative representation as inconsistent with the principle of "one man, one vote." Prior to the Supreme Court's rulings, several states assigned equal representation to all counties, which meant that rural voters were heavily over-represented in proportion to their share of the population. Once state legislatures were reorganized according to the "one man, one vote" principle, the share of government funds flowing to rural counties dropped dramatically. Voting power matters. When groups such as conservative Christians or elderly Americans vote in large numbers, policymakers have an incentive to take their concerns seriously. By the same token, elected officials can afford to disregard groups that vote at low rates, such as southern blacks prior to the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Largely excluded from the electorate by racially biased voter registration practices, southern blacks saw their needs for schooling, transportation, and jobs go unheeded by state and local government.

The Kansas State Board of Education elections also illustrate the power of small numbers in elections where turnout is low. The ability to mobilize a few hundred supporters can prove decisive when only a few thousand votes are cast. Knowing what it takes to generate a few hundred votes in a reliable way can therefore be extremely valuable. It can be valuable not only for a specific candidate conducting the voter mobilization campaign but also for all of the candidates who share similar party labels. Mobilizing 500 Republicans to support the GOP nominee in a state assembly race furnishes votes for Republican candidates up and down the ticket.

Getting Advice on Getting Out the Vote

Campaigns vary enormously in their goals: some are partisan, some nonpartisan; some focus on name recognition, some on persuasion, and some on mobilizing their base of loyal voters. Some campaigns seek to educate citizens, some to register citizens, and some to motivate citizens. But varied as they are, campaigns have important and obvious commonalities. As election day approaches and campaigns move into GOTV mode, their aims become quite similar and their purposes very narrow. By the week before the election, they are all homing in on one simple task-to get their people to the polls. Each campaign struggles with the same basic question: How should remaining resources be allocated in order to turn out the largest number of targeted voters?

Ask around and you will receive plenty of advice on what is the best way to mobilize voters in those final days or weeks. You may hear that it is one part mailings to three parts phone calls for an incumbent race. You may hear that, regardless of the office, it is two parts television and radio, if you can afford it, to two parts phone calls. You may even hear that, for a nonpartisan GOTV campaign, it is four parts door-to-door canvassing, but you will never be able to get enough canvassers, so it is best just to make phone calls. Almost all this advice is based on conjecture-conjecture drawn from experience perhaps, but conjecture nonetheless (see box 1-1).

What sets this book apart from the existing "how to win an election" canon is five years of rigorous scientific research. Every study reported in this book used a randomized experimental design, which is a research methodology that produces a reliable way to gauge effects-in this case, the effects of GOTV interventions. In a nutshell, the experiments we report divide lists of registered voters into a group that receives the intervention in question and a group that does not. After the election is over, researchers examine public records to see who voted and then tabulate the results in order to determine whether those assigned to receive the GOTV treatment voted at higher rates than those assigned to the control group. Although these field experiments still leave room for interpretation, they go a long way toward replacing speculation with evidence.

Another aspect of our work that contributes to our objectivity is that we are not in the business of selling campaign services. In the past, scanning for truth about the effectiveness of various GOTV strategies was like having to consult with salespeople about whether or not to purchase the items they are selling. Many campaign consultants have financial interests in direct mail companies, phone banks, or media consultancy services. In this book, we make a concerted effort to incorporate the results of every experimental study conducted since the mid-1990s, not just the ones that are congenial to a particular point of view.

Two constraints of this work must be acknowledged at the outset. First, we have not yet looked at high-profile campaigns, such as U.S. Senate races or presidential races. Although we believe that the findings discussed here are relevant to such large-scale campaigns insofar as they rely on GOTV tactics such as phone banks or direct mail, we have yet to conduct experiments that speak directly to the effectiveness of mass media, on which these large-scale campaigns rely heavily.

Second, although they are of obvious importance, GOTV strategies are not the only factors at play in an election. When we speak of the effectiveness of GOTV techniques, we have in mind the percentage increase in voter turnout that can be attributed to professional phone callers or direct mail, for instance. Using the most effective get-out-the-vote strategy will not guarantee victory. All the other factors that shape the electoral fortunes of a candidate-persona, platform, party, and campaign management-are relevant as well. A spectacularly successful GOTV campaign might lift an overmatched candidate from 28 to 38 percent or a competitive candidate from 48 to 58 percent. Often, winning elections is possible only when voter mobilization strategies are combined with messages that persuade voters to vote in a particular way (see box 1-2).

GOTV Research and Larger Questions about Why People Do Not Vote

Political observers often turn to broad-gauge explanations for why so few Americans vote: alienation from public life, the lack of a proportional representation system, the failings of civic education, the geographic mobility of the population. We might call these long-term-very long-term-GOTV considerations. Many books written by academics focus exclusively on these explanations.

This book, in contrast, is concerned with GOTV considerations in the short term. We do not discuss the ways in which political participation is shaped by fundamental features of our political, social, and economic system, although we agree that structural and psychological barriers to voting are worthy of study and that large-scale reforms might well be beneficial. In the concluding chapter, we describe research that might be useful to those interested in learning more about how voter turnout relates to these broader features of society. The focus of this book is quite different. Our aim is to look closely at how GOTV campaigns are structured and to figure out how various GOTV tactics affect voter participation. This close-to-the-ground approach is designed to provide campaigns with useful information on the effectiveness of common GOTV techniques. With six weeks until an election, even the most dedicated campaign team will not be able to reshape the country's basic constitutional framework or the political culture of American society. What a campaign can do, however, is make informed choices about its GOTV plans, ensuring that its resources are being used efficiently to produce votes.

Evidence versus War Stories

Before delving into the research findings, we want to call attention to a cluster of assumptions that often hinder informed GOTV decisionmaking. One is the belief that the experts know what works: that knowledge is, after all, what makes them the experts. Someone with a lot of campaign experience must know which tactics work and which do not under assorted circumstances. On the other end of the spectrum is the idea that no one really knows what works because no one can adequately measure what works. There is no way to rerun an election using different GOTV methods, no parallel universe in which to watch the very same campaign focusing its efforts on mass mailings, then on phone banks, and then on television ads. The final assumption is that if everybody is doing it, it must be useful: 5,000 campaigners can't be wrong about prerecorded calls!

The following six chapters respond to these misguided assumptions. In short,

  •   Experts, be they consultants, seasoned campaigners, or purveyors of GOTV technology, rarely, if ever, measure effectiveness. Hal Malchow, one of the few consultants to embrace experimentation, reports that his calls for rigorous evaluation repeatedly go unheeded. Notwithstanding the large quantities of money at stake, Malchow observes that "no one really knows how much difference mail and phone GOTV programs make."

  •   Experts may report speculations in the guise of "findings," but without a rigorous research design, those "findings" are suspect. Those who manage campaigns and sell campaign services have a wealth of experience in deploying campaign resources, formulating campaign messages, and supervising campaign staff. But lacking a background in research design or statistical inference, they frequently misrepresent (innocently in many cases) correlation as causation. They might claim, for instance, that a radio GOTV campaign is responsible for increasing the Latino vote in a particular media market. In support of this assertion, they might point to the lack of change in the Latino vote in a neighboring media market. Because it is difficult to know whether the two media markets are truly comparable, we find this form of proof-by-anecdote unpersuasive.

  •   There is an accurate way to measure the effectiveness of GOTV techniques, namely, through experimental research. Randomly assigning a set of precincts or media markets to different campaign tactics makes meaningful causal inferences possible.

  •   Lastly, our results may surprise you. Just because everybody is doing it does not necessarily mean that it works. It appears that large sums of money are routinely wasted on ineffective GOTV tactics.


    Excerpted from Get Out the Vote! by Donald P. Green Alan S. Gerber Copyright © 2004 by Brookings Institution Press . Excerpted by permission.
    All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
    Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

  • Table of Contents

    1Why Voter Mobilization Matters1
    2Evidence versus Received Wisdom11
    3Door-to-Door Canvassing: Shoe Leather Politics23
    4Leaflets: Walk, Don't Talk42
    5Direct Mail: Postal Service as Campaign Staff49
    6Phone Banks: Politics Meets Telemarketing63
    7Electronic Mail: Faster, Cheaper, but Does It Work?81
    8Frontiers of Get-Out-the-Vote Research90
    ATechnical Results of Door-to-Door Canvassing Experiments113
    BTechnical Results of Direct Mail Experiments119
    CTechnical Results of Phone Calling Experiments124

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