Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Partisan Mobilization Campaigns in the Field: Results from a Statewide Turnout Experiment in Michigan

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Partisan Mobilization Campaigns in the Field: Results from a Statewide Turnout Experiment in Michigan

Article excerpt

Political parties have recently rediscovered grassroots tactics for voter mobilization. The only solid evidence for the effectiveness of such get-out-the-vote (GOTV) tactics is based upon non-partisan field experiments that may not accurately capture the effectiveness of partisan campaign outreach. In order to address this lacuna, during the 2002 Michigan gubernatorial election, a large field experiment across 14 state house districts evaluated the cost effectiveness of three mobilization technologies utilized by the Michigan Democratic Party's Youth Coordinated Campaign: door hangers, volunteer phone calls, and face-to-face visits. Contrary to past non-partisan experiments, our results indicate that all three GOTV strategies possess similar cost-effectiveness.

With voter turnout falling from 88.1 percent of registered voters in 1960 to just 65.6 percent in 2000 (Wattenberg 2002: 45), political parties and "527" organizations approached the 2004 campaign with renewed emphasis both on registration and on mobilizing already registered voters. Get-out-the-vote efforts were once again in vogue, with MoveOn.org claiming more than two million online activists and America Coming Together aiming to reach seventeen million voters either in person or over the phone. Given such optimistic projections, the question becomes: How effective are various partisan tactics at bringing voters to the polls? Since the number of elected officials in the United States tops 511,000 (U.S. Census 1995), the appetite for guidance on how campaigns can attract voters has been strong.

Handbooks for political practitioners emphasize face-toface contacts and targeted mailings for local campaigns while advocating mass advertising on television and radio for candidates in districts too large to walk (Fauchex 2002; Bike 2001; Guber 1997). Popular manuals on voter turnout have focused on anecdotes from successful campaigns, which reflect fads pushed by paid consultants. This article builds on experiment-based nonpartisan get-out-the-vote research (Gerber and Green 200Oa, b; Gerber and Green 2001a; Green, Gerber, and Nickerson 2003) by exploring mobilization on a large scale and within a highly partisan environment: the 2002 Michigan gubernatorial election.

Survey-based scholarship has noted the importance of close elections and strong top-of-the-ticket draws, but as for what specific things candidates can do to increase turnout, the evidence is less conclusive (Wielhouwer and Lockerbie 1994; Caldeira, Clausen, and Patterson 1990; Kramer 1970). Personal contact from a campaign is correlated with higher turnout, whether the contact occurs over the phone or face-to-face (Rosenstone and Hansen 1993). The strength of the links between actions of a campaign and voters are, however, difficult to discern using surveys. Political parties carefully target appeals to people who are already politically active, so those contacted may indeed vote more, but not necessarily as a consequence of the contact (Wielhouwer 2003). Furthermore, the mere act of answering a political survey is a political act, and the non-response problem may exaggerate the effect of contacting voters (Brehm 1993).

Field experiments, beginning with Gosnell (1927), divide potential voters into treatment and control groups in order to assess the influence of campaign mailings, phone banking, door knocking, and so on (Eldersveld 1956; Adams and Smith 1980; Miller, Bositis, and Baer 1981). Each of these experiments found a boost in turnout from personal contact, but the sample sizes were small and the experiments failed to account for people in the treatment group who were not contacted (Gerber, Green, and Nickerson 2001).

Recent experiments by Gerber and Green (2000a b, 2001a b, 2003) have corrected for deficiencies in earlier studies while including cost estimates of the effectiveness of different turnout techniques (Green, Gerber, and Nickerson 2003; Nickerson forthcoming-a). …

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