Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

The Persuasive Effects of Partisan Campaign Mailers

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

The Persuasive Effects of Partisan Campaign Mailers

Article excerpt

Campaigns spend huge amounts of money on political advertising in each election cycle. The primary intent of these communication efforts is typically to increase the likelihood that a voter will recognize and, ultimately, sup- port the sponsoring candidate on Election Day. Much of this spending on communications-by some estimates as much as 15 percent in the 2012 election cycle-is devoted to direct mail advertising. Although an expansive and grow- ing literature has used field experiments to examine the effects of non-partisan get-out-the-vote appeals, little work has examined the effects of partisan campaign mailers. One factor that has slowed the pace of published research in this area is that because grants and institutional research funds cannot be used to fund partisan efforts, examining the effects of these mailers in the field requires establishing a relationship with campaign strategists who are willing to fund the research and permit publication of findings.

In this article, we report findings from studies that leverage the unique advantages of field experiments. Each was done in collaboration with campaign strategists working on state legislative races during the 2012 general election campaign season. In each case, we are able to assess the effects of mailers that focus on touting the pos- itive characteristics of the sponsoring candidate and the effects of negative messages that attack the opposing can- didate. We are also able to compare the effects of these two types of communications. The findings make three contributions to our understanding of the effectiveness of direct mail campaign messaging.

First, our findings demonstrate that partisan cam- paign mailers affect voters. Most notably, in the first experiment, we find evidence that mailers substantially affect name recognition of the candidates-a factor that appears to play an important role in shaping vote choice (Goldenberg and Traugott 1980; Stokes and Miller 1962). Specifically, positive mailers that focus on the sponsoring candidate increase name recognition of that candidate while negative mailers that attack the oppos- ing candidate increase rates of recognition of that candi- date. Although we find suggestive evidence that the mailers affected voter evaluations of the candidates as intended, for the most part, these effects fall short of conventional levels of statistical significance.

Second, an ongoing scholarly debate pertains to whether negative campaign communications stimulate or depress participation. Our evidence indicates that both negative and positive mailers increase reported intent to turn out. Notably, the effects associated with each type of mailer are statistically indistinguishable from one another.

Finally, our evidence suggests that the timing of cam- paign communications is likely to play a crucial role in determining their effectiveness. The mailers substantially affected name recognition in the first field experiment (conducted several months before the election) but did not affect name recognition in the second study (con- ducted only weeks before Election Day). In addition, consistent with some existing work, we find that the effects of campaign mailers are short-lived. By the time the surveys associated with the second field experiment were conducted, the treatment effects identified in the first field experiment had evaporated. Similarly, the fact that the mailers stimulated intent to turn out in the second field experiment did not translate into an increase in like- lihood of actually turning out to vote several weeks later.

The Effects of Campaign Communications

As we discuss below, little work has assessed the effects of partisan direct mail. However, a voluminous literature has examined the effects of other forms of campaign advertising-especially television advertising. Before continuing, it is important to note that existing work finds evidence that the effectiveness of campaign messages can depend substantially on the medium through which it is conveyed (Green and Gerber 2008; Hillygus and Shields 2009). …

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