The Campaign Effect: The Catalist Evidence

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Do campaigns matter? That debate among political scientists is largely solved. The answer is: "yes." But how and when they matter remains a subject of much academic research -- research which campaign professionals often don't know about, and research about which journalists never seem to write.

John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University, notes the parallels between the Catalist findings I wrote about earlier and the latest social science. Most importantly: voter mobilization efforts -- telephone calls, door knocks, and literature -- work better on voters with a moderate propensity to vote than they do among voters with very high or very low propensities to vote. The reasons seem intuitive, but campaigns tend not to realize that the bulk of evidence supports this theory.

Sides writes of 11 different mobilization experiments conducted by David Nickerson and Kevin Acreneaux from 1998 to 2003.

Since the population of non-voting citizens tends to be poorer and less educated, their abstention is the likely culprit for the lack of correspondence between their opinions and government policy (Bartels 2002). Encouraging participation through GOTV may be a simple and cost effective way to help alleviate concerns that rising income inequality exacerbates the participation gap between rich and poor, and weaken democratic responsiveness (cf. APSA Task Force Report 2004). Yet if GOTV mobilization is not effective among the population of chronic non-voters, such optimism may be misplaced.

Like Catalist's data, the two scientists found that the "effectiveness of GOTV at stimulating participation among chronic non-voters is contingent on the electoral environment." This "contextual" model of voter mobilization notices that canvassing increases turnout among those who are "on the cusp" of voting -- but the location of the imaginary mental fence in their minds is contingent on the electoral context. Breaking this salience threshold requires something other than best practices and good GOTV techniques: it requires a competitive election that really matters.

"In low salience, uncompetitive elections, face-to-face conversations about the importance of voting will not be sufficient to bring unlikely voters to the polls. In these cases, a campaign's efforts are best directed towards high propensity voters, who might be persuaded that voting in 'minor' elections is a worthwhile endeavor."
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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