Shattering myths about getting out the vote

Hal Malchow

What is the expected impact of calling a voter before the election to urge them to show up at the polls? Does sending a piece of mail affect turnout at all? What about automated or robo-calls, e-mails, door hangers or door-to-door canvassing?


While these questions are sure to elicit an avalanche of opinions, political professionals have almost no real answers. In politics, we spend hundreds of millions–even billions–of dollars on a whole arsenal of methods to turn out voters. But we spend almost nothing to find out what works. The absence of real empirical knowledge about these questions by campaign professionals tells a sad and shocking story about how we do business.

Two political science professors at Yale have taken as their mission to conduct scientifically rigorous experiments to measure the impact of various voter contact techniques on individual voter turnout.

In a series of more than 20 experiments conducted between 1998 and 2002, Donald P. Green and Alan S. Gerber tested all of the key techniques campaigns employ to generate voter turnout. In each experiment, they established a control group that received none of the mail, phone calls or door-to-door contacts being tested. Then, using voter records showing which voters actually voted, they measured the impact of these methods.

In their new book, published in March by the Brookings Institution, they summarize these experiments in a practical guide designed to help any campaign shape its get-out-the-vote (GOTV) strategy. “Get Out the Vote! How to Increase Voter Turnout” shatters conventional wisdom about GOTV. Here are the highlights.

Phones: The gold standard of GOTV has always been phoning. But experiments showed that short GOTV scripts by commercial phone banks had almost no impact on turnout.

In experiments involving volunteer phone banks or closely supervised phoning using longer and more interactive scripts, the phone calls raised turnout about 3 percentage points, sometimes more.


Robo-calls: Several robo-call experiments produced no discernable impact on voter turnout, compared with the control group that received none of the calls.


Mail: The results of Gerber and Green’s test of both partisan and non-partisan tests on direct mail were not impressive. Direct mail containing non-partisan GOTV messages raised turnout about half percentage point for each piece of mail sent. Partisan direct mail, which advocated a candidate, had a smaller impact, although the mail did raise turnout about a half percentage point per mailer among frequent primary voters of the same party.

E-mails: In a major youth vote e-mail campaign conducted with almost 350,000 college students in nine states, the e-mails affected neither voter registration nor the voter turnout.

Door hangers: One experiment with Michigan Democrats in the 2002 general election campaign indicated door hangers were surprisingly cost-effective. They increased turnout by 1 percentage point.

Door-to-door canvass: The gold standard for GOTV turned out to be the door-to-door canvass. Door-to-door canvassing, which is expensive both in terms of time and money, produced turnout increases of 7 to 12 percentage points.

Green and Gerber calculated costs to produce a vote, based on their experiments and estimations of the costs of each technique. Since robo-calls, short commercial calls and e-mail did not produce any impact in their experiments, no costs can be estimated. These estimates are rough at best. It is easy to quibble with their estimates. The estimated cost of door-to-door canvassing does not include administrative overhead. The door hanger estimate is based on one experiment. The mail estimate does not include a pure example of partisan coordinated campaign mail to a targeted audience. But, putting aside those issues, their estimates do provide an interesting scale of effectiveness.

These experiments are not the final word on the impact of any of these techniques. Neither of the authors would claim otherwise. But they are a startling first assessment of how our techniques are working and how far behind political professionals have fallen in understanding their methods and how they perform.

A major message that comes through these experiments: Quality counts. The more personal the contact, the more likely it is to motivate someone to vote. Phone calls by volunteers or well-trained and committed callers work much better than calls made by professional callers with no connection to the candidate or cause. In the case of phones, paying $1.50 for a high quality call is far more cost effective than paying 50 cents for a short call hurriedly read by an uncommitted caller.

The impact of door-to-door canvassing is impressive, although it flopped in a few instances where the canvassing was not well managed. Door-to-door requires more management skills to execute. In the end, many voters simply cannot be reached at the doorstep, just as many cannot be reached on the telephone. For managers planning GOTV campaigns, a mix of methods may be the ideal formula.

Perhaps the most important lesson to be taken from Green and Gerber’s work is the importance of measurements and learning. In 2000, the Republican National Committee began pulling control groups from its GOTV targets to measure impact. Presumably these experiments informed the design of their 2002 GOTV campaigns, which emphasize door to door canvassing and volunteer activities. Now, the Democratic National Committee has begun to make experimentation a big part of its agenda. Learning is under way. And that learning will change everything we do.

GOTV and the 2004 elections

Underlying these studies is the concept that there is no inexpensive way to increase turnout. Compared with ideas long held by many political professionals, our methods have little impact at best. And almost all of the experiments Gerber and Green performed took place outside of the presidential general election when information, interest and turn out are at their peaks. Clearly, using mail to turn out voters in a low turnout state legislative race is easier than increasing turnout in the presidential election.

What we learn about presidential election strategies for GOTV may prove even more interesting than what Gerber and Green have already learned. But whatever the findings, the work of these two academics assures us that, in 2004, both parties will measure results. A new process will begin, knowledge will grow and all of us involved in voter contact will learn how to be more effective and productive in what we do.

Get Out the Vote! How to Increase Voter Turnout, by Donald P. Green and Alan S. Gerber, the Brookings Institution, 145 pages, April 2004.

Review by Hal Malchow

Hal Malchow is founder and principle at Malchow Schlackman Hoppey & Cooper, a Democratic direct mail firm in Washington, D.C.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Campaigns & Elections, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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