Sometimes the messenger is the message. Recent research conducted by Yale University and reported at the International Association of Political Consultants conference in Barcelona, Spain this year suggests that was the case in the midterm elections. (Full disclosure: I serve as president of this organization and officially invite you to join the 150 or so political professionals from around the world who gather each November to hear from experts, swap war stories, party into the evening and enjoy one or another of the world’s most beautiful cities.)
There is an old advertising bromide that “half my advertising dollars are wasted — I just don’t know which half.” Chris Mann, a Ph.D. candidate at Yale and vice president at the well-known direct-mail firm MSHC Partners, went a long way toward telling us what we’re wasting in many contemporary political campaigns — and it is a lot!
It turns out that many of the techniques Democrats poured millions of dollars into this campaign cycle don’t work that well. In particular, so-called “robo-calls” have zero effect on persuasion and turnout. In fact, the research suggests, robo-calls may actually depress targeted turnout in contested elections. And commercial phone banks using a standard, brief script perform no better, according to the Yale research.
What does work is old-fashioned volunteer phone banks using longer, interactive scripts. Such phone banks increase the turnout of targeted voters by nearly four percentage points over “control” groups to which no calls were made. When you add a degree of professionalism by hiring a commercial phone bank to make volunteer-like calls, turnout clicks up another percentage point. It seems that people want to have a real conversation about candidates and issues, not hear a canned message. Interactivity works. Moreover, there is a spillover effect in the household reached by such calls. About 60 percent of other household members turn up at the polls as well. If you are a Republican calling double-Republican households, that is very good news. If you are calling a split household, on the other hand, you may be hurting your cause by trying to ramp up turnout.
One of the most interesting findings was that timing plays a very significant role in such phone campaigns. Calls made more than two weeks before Election Day turn out to be virtually worthless. That may cause some heartburn among phone vendors, but spending campaign resources on early calls is clearly a waste.
In the increasing number of states that have “no proof” absentee voting, a combination of phone ID, direct mail recruitment, and a phone follow-up does seem to increase vote-by-mail returns roughly 5 percent. However, there is evidence this technique works best among affinity groups. For example, an environmental mailing to members of environmental groups will drive up absentee voting. The same piece of mail to regular voters will have little or no impact.
Why does all this academic research matter? Because despite the millions of dollars Democrats threw into technology, there is a general consensus that Republicans have taken a longer-term, more personal view of voter contact. It paid off, even in the face of strong Democratic trends. Of the 22 House elections determined by margins of two points or less, Republicans won 13.
Finally, a single Yale study found that unsolicited e-mails have little impact on the voting performance of younger voters. That may be true, but my firm’s experience with using e-mail runs counter to that. In a very tight ballot-issue campaign this year in which our client had limited resources we decided to gamble on not using direct mail, long a staple of our I&R campaigns. Instead we poured low six figures into an Internet campaign with a strong viral e-mail component. It worked, and not just with younger voters. Every time we sent a mass e-mail featuring an animated character we registered tens of thousands of new hits on our website within hours. Many of those visitors joined our virtual grassroots organization, passed on the e-mail and helped use the Internet to turn out like-minded voters on Election Day. We came from a 20-point deficit to a five-point win and the Internet, not the direct mail and robo-calls used by our opposition, contributed heavily to that victory.
So, while Democrats celebrate a hard-won victory in the midterms, they would be well-served to ponder why Republicans did so well in those tight races. Good voter ID and personal communication sends a powerful message.
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.