Political experiments and political strategies

Alan Gerber, Donald Green and Christopher Larimer had a much discussed piece in the APSR early last year which used an experimental design to argue that social pressure had quite substantial effects indeed on people’s participation in politics.

Prior to the August 2006 primary election in Michigan, approximately 80,000 households were sent one of four mailings encouraging them to vote. The content of these mailings was inspired by historical and cross-national examples of policies that publicized the names of voters and nonvoters. One experimental group received a mailing that merely reminded them that voting is a civic duty; in a second group, they were told that researchers would be studying their turnout based on public records; a third treatment group received mailings displaying the record of turnout among those in the household; a fourth mailing revealed both the household’s voter turnout and their neighbors’ turnout. The latter two treatments suggested that a follow-up mailing after the election would report to the household or the neighborhood the subject’s turnout in the upcoming election.
… the in?uence of a single piece of direct mail turns out to be formidable when (and only when) social pressure is exerted. Exposing a person’s voting record to his or her neighbors turns out to be an order of magnitude more effective than conventional pieces of partisan or nonpartisan direct mail. In fact, the turnout effect associated with this mailing is as strong as the effect of direct contact by door-to-door canvassers and by far the most cost-effective voter mobilization tactic studied to date.

I hadn’t realized until very recently though that this research helped motivate the famous MoveOn Obama’s Loss Traced To —video. I emailed a MoveOn person to ask about this, but in fact the NYT published a piece on this a couple of months ago.

Peter Koechley, who is in charge of MoveOn’s youth outreach, said his team had been contemplating using the personalized video technology for months. They also wanted to capitalize on research by Donald P. Green and Alan S. Gerber of Yale, which suggests that social pressure is among the most effective ways to bring out the youth vote. The resulting threat of “humiliation in the future,” said Mr. Koechley, a former managing editor of the satirical newspaper The Onion, “goes down a little easier with a little humor in it.” Despite MoveOn’s multi-million name database, the video had a soft launch: staff sent the video to friends on Oct. 22. The next day the video was being sent to about 10 people per second, and that rate doubled on Friday. “Since then, we’ve been cruising along at 30 to 35 a second,” Mr. Pariser said, adding that only about 17 percent of the recipients are already MoveOn.org members. “Our young members are probably pretty likely to vote, but if you look at even the people who are young members, you’re hitting a lot of people” who are statistically unlikely to go to the polls, he said. covered this a couple of months ago.

I was surprised and gratified to to talk to an Obama campaign operative a few weeks ago, and to hear that not only was he familiar with Gerber/Green, but was hoping to run some experiments next time around, to really figure out what was working and what doesn’t. Maybe some of the methodologies and lessons of political science are actually beginning to leak back into the process …

Update: title changed since this obviously wasn’t a natural experiment …

2 Responses to Political experiments and political strategies

  1. Emery January 5, 2009 at 9:23 pm #

    Um, is that research design ethical? Implicitly threatening to “expose” non-voting to neighbors? I really don’t know the answer, but it sure raises the question.

  2. paul g. January 5, 2009 at 11:05 pm #

    Henry, don’t mean to be snarky, but if this is the first time you’ve realized that the Gerber/Green work on participation has bled into politics, you haven’t been talking to the right people.

    There is a great volume published at least five (maybe more) years ago at this point that was explicitly a campaigners guide to this research, and most GOTV folks have known about this work since it first hit the presses in the late 90s.

    It’s one of the main reasons that the main GOTV organizations have changed from direct mail and phone calls to in-person contacts. You can blame Don Green for all those annoying college students knocking at your door!