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November 10, 2006


By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

Monday morning, after the breaking of the story about Republican robocalls being misattributed to Democrats, our campaign was trying to run through that day's list of 4500 get-out-the-vote calls.  Phone banking, as Ezra described earlier, is among the less fun jobs that a volunteer has to do -- you're basically an annoying telemarketer and lots of people get irritated and hang up on you.  That day it was especially unpleasant, because I was doing something fairly similar to what Republicans were paying money for.  As soon as the opportunity arose, I ran away to do some door-to-door canvassing.

Experiences like this have given me a keen interest in how a campaign can develop a good field operation, and now I'm poring over the academic research on the issue.  The big study on this issue comes from Donald Green at Yale.  From the abstract: "We find that personal canvassing increased voter turnout substantially; direct mail, slightly; and phone calls, not at all."  Green's hypothesis is that a decline in the amount of face-to-face contact between people and campaigns is responsible for the historical decline in voter turnout. 

One of my favorite forms of field work, and one that Green's theory would encourage, is posting a group of enthusiastic volunteers beside a busy highway holding signs and waving to motorists.  When people honked or waved back, I'd give them a thumbs up or yell or jump around.  There's a sort of enthusiastic supportive communication going on then, in full view of others who might be undecided.  Seeing a lot of people be excited about something may have a sort of contagious effect on undecided voters that other forms of campaigning can't replicate.  (We also had this really cool art school girl who would do cartwheels when the motorists were especially enthusiastic.)

Another interesting thing that our Deputy Campaign manager, Lisa Sherman, had volunteers do was to hand-write letters to undecided voters.  The thinking is that while people might just throw away commercially produced flyers, regarding them as junk mail, a handwritten letter would have a much larger chance of being read and considered.  While a form was available for anyone who wanted to copy down a generic message, volunteers were encouraged to personalize and improvise as they pleased.  While some volunteers just want to carry whatever message you give them, others want to be able to do their little part to shape the campaign's message, and the letters gave them an opportunity to do so.  They took a little while to write, but I wouldn't be surprised if they were a reasonably effective use of that time. 

November 10, 2006 | Permalink


My conjecture is that one of the reasons for increased turnout over the past two elections, especially among youth, is the degree to which politics is now something people talk about. It's no longer considered completely taboo to bring up the subject.

The future of campaigning will be delivering messages to "opinion leaders" in social institutions and making sure they keep the mood positive for your candidates. Plus door to door volunteering. At the rate that things are going, people will just unplug their phones for the month before an election.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Nov 10, 2006 3:20:23 PM

I have wondered if internet communication in general and blogging in specific isn't partially responsible for increased voter turn-out. While political blogs are a minority, even a lot of non-political blogs mention and engage in politics at at least a superficial level from time to time.

People who are able to communicate a message become vastly more attached to that message then if they just recieve it.

Posted by: Dave Justus | Nov 10, 2006 3:24:59 PM

This is absolutely true in my personal case.

I voted for Lisa Madigan, a pol here in Illinois, simply because she showed up at my train station at 6am and shook my hand.

Posted by: mickslam | Nov 10, 2006 3:59:07 PM

I think instead of just cartwheels, have some sort of entertaining event happen: a dunking booth? A dance troupe? A guy in a silly costume doing a funky dance? Cheerleaders? Firing off a potato cannon? The possibilities are endless. And it would give entertainers a new venue. win-win!

Posted by: emjaybee | Nov 10, 2006 4:24:15 PM

That makes plenty of sense. I consider junk phone calls to be the same as junk mail. Do you read teh "vote for me" stuff that gets put through your letter box? Probably not.
Whereas the BNP made gains in council elections in England a few year ago, largely because they were the only party that actually went out and talked to people on the street, the other parties just drove past in their cars saying "Vote for me".

(Note- the BNP are a far right wing racist party in the UK, who have traditionally had some support, but thinkly spread and not great in numbers. For them to get council seats shows a large amount of protest voting, and is also a reflection of the way they have downplayed the racist attitudes.)

Posted by: guthrie | Nov 10, 2006 5:36:39 PM

I live in John Doolittle's district near Sacramento and was moved this year to be a campaign volunteer for the first time (for his opponent of course!). I agree that phone banking totally sucks. I swear I will never do it again, especially if the post is correct in its assertion that personal canvassing is more effective. God knows it was a lot more fun.

Posted by: Nonplussed | Nov 14, 2006 1:28:33 AM

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