What Campaign Strategists Can Learn From Economics

We're one day away from a historic midterm election, and November 1 is ground zero for last ditch advertising and national Get-Out-the-Vote efforts. You can't drive down a street without casting an eye toward red and blue signs running wild like ragweed by the side of the road. You can't watch TV without seeing another attack ad ... attacking the candidate who approved the previous commercial. And don't even think about opening your mailbox if you're sick of the political tug-of-war.

But what if there's a smarter way to lead voters to the ballot box and make them check your name?

The answer might be living in behavioral economics. That's regular economics, mugged by psychology. The Obama administration partially embraced it when they designed the $100 billion "Making Work Pay" tax cut in the Recovery Act. That only one in five Americans know they got a tax cut last year is evidence that sometime behavioral economics can be too subtle for its own good. But Democratic campaign strategists are still hoping that BE can help them win a few more voters on Tuesday.

An increasingly influential cadre of Democratic strategists is finding new ideas in the same place Malchow did: behavioral-science experiments that treat campaigns as their laboratories and voters as unwitting guinea pigs. The growing use of experimental methods -- Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote, calls them "prescription drug trials for democracy" -- is convulsing a profession where hunches and instinct have long ruled. Already, experimental findings have upended a lot of folk wisdom about how votes are won. The most effective direct mail might not be the most eye-catching in the mailbox but the least conspicuous. It is better to have an anonymous, chatty volunteer remind voters it's Election Day than a recorded message from Bill Clinton or Jay-Z. The most winnable voters may be soft supporters of the opposition, not the voters who polls say are undecided. ("Undecided" may just be another word for "unlikely to vote.")

Read the full story in NYT Magazine.