Update, Jan. 30, 2016: A voter in Iowa tweeted about receiving a mailer from the presidential campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) that hopes to goad him into heading to caucus by sharing the voting records of people he knows.
Iowa Secretary of State office just sent out this statement on those Cruz mailers: pic.twitter.com/JxXZiKdGGZ
— Rosie Gray (@RosieGray) January 30, 2016
But does the tactic work? When similar strategies emerged before the 2014 election, we asked an expert.
The favorite distinction of the political hack is between the privacy of your vote and privacy that you vote. Modern politics is heavily dependent on knowing how often you make it to the polls, driving polling, ad targeting, and -- in increasingly direct ways -- efforts to get you to the polls.
Earlier this week, we looked at the trend toward using social pressure to get people to turn out. Since then, more examples have cropped up, spurring an often-negative response.
Like this letter sent from the Democratic Party of New York, reading, in part: "We will be reviewing the New York County official voting records after the upcoming election to determine whether you join your neighbors who voted in 2014. If you do not vote this year, we will be interested to hear why not." Which prompted a perhaps-expected response: Get out of my head, New York Democrats.
But clearly, there's a reason this is being done. To evaluate the utility of those letters and similar efforts, we reached out to Dr. Donald Green of Columbia University, who has been researching turnout techniques, including social pressure, for years. (You may remember that Green also spoke with us last week to assess turnout at large.)
We were particularly interested in several experiments, clearly aimed at boosting turnout:
- The New York Democrats' letter and a similar postcard received by someone I know
- DidTheyVote.org, which lets people see if their friends in Oregon have mailed in their ballots yet
- The above-mentioned experiment from a PAC in Alaska listing neighbors' voting histories.
So does it work? "The one in Alaska is patterned after the work of Mark Grebner, who is the one who developed this kind of tactic more than 10 years ago," Green said when we spoke by phone Friday morning. "He's the brains behind that whole idea of basically reminding people that voting is a public record and dramatizing it by presenting them with that record. ... His idea was that people would vote if we were to sort of return to the days of open, village-level elections and people showed up to be counted." The Oregon experiment, which is similar to other experiments in other states, tries to leverage Facebook in a non-confrontational way to do the same thing.
The tool walks a fine line. "The more forceful the social pressure, the bigger the effect," Green says, which inspires campaigns and advocates to push the boundaries. It's a balance along two lines: How confrontational you want to be and how much effort you want to put into it. Something like the Alaska mailer requires a lot more data than the simple "we will be interested to hear why not" eyebrow-raise from the Democrats -- which costs nothing but clearly hopes for the same effect. "That's a new move," Green said of that line in the letter, a different "mix of the ingredients" than he's seen, trying to balance the effects with the negative response.
Green actually warns campaigns about using the tactic. "In our 'Get Out the Vote' book, we warn readers not to use these tactics, lest they encounter a wave of angry responses." In an effort to find a balance, "we've seen quite a lot of research on softening these tactics to make them somewhat more palatable." Some outreach praises voters, some thanks voters for having voted, and some are direct. "The more heavy-handed your approach, the more negative press you're likely to get," he says. "That's why you see the range of postcards and mailings" we've seen over the past few cycles. Experimentation.
As always, the rise of outside spending complicates things. The letter sent in Alaska was from a conservative PAC called Opportunity Alliance. It can target specific voters with specific details -- a forceful social push -- without a campaign or candidate or even political movement bearing the brunt of the blowback. Green has seen this on the rise, too.
If you're one of those who is frustrated by such mailings, Green offers a possible bit of good news: He hasn't seen research tracking the cumulative effect of such reminders over time, and suspects that it might be diminishing. The desperation of groups in the low-turnout midterm election of 2014, in other words, might be peak we're-watching-you, if turnout, as it turns out, didn't see much of a boost.
Over the long run, there's only one way to keep campaigns from breathing down your neck: don't vote. But that, of course, carries its own set of problems.