Votes are meant to be the great equalizer, and certainly the more people who vote, the harder or more expensive it is for narrow special interests to monopolize political influence. At the same time, the way those voters are mobilized matters. Generally speaking, voter mobilization tactics are more People Powered than other aspects of campaigns, relying heavily on volunteers, but if the most effective ways to mobilize voters involve extensive reliance on highly paid staffers, expensive technologies, or activist outliers, then candidates will need some subsets of the electorate (donors to pay the staffers, the activist groups, etc.) more than a broad cross section of the electorate and risk feeling pressured to heed those subsets more once in office.
The conventional practice in House races is for the parties to make the investment in “ground games” (local door-to-door efforts by staff and volunteers) late in the electoral season, after the parties have assessed how competitive each race is and determined where their investments are likely to pay off most effectively for the party. It is also worth noting that these operations are often largely “imported” – the staff swoops in at the last minute, builds much of the outreach operation from scratch without effectively leveraging local civil society infrastructure or networks. These networks – religious institutions, gun clubs, Planned Parenthood offices, PTAs, etc. – could play a significant role in Get Out the Vote (GOTV) efforts. These dynamics present opportunities, and effectively build off of active civil society groups.
Numerous field experiments have found that more personalized messages are more effective in mobilizing voters. The research has generally found personal, face-to-face delivery of GOTV messages to be most effective1, but recent research on phone calls has demonstrated comparable levels of results if the messages are personalized and delivered in a conversational manner.2 Impersonal efforts, such as robo-calls and mass e-mails3, have consistently been found to be ineffective means of mobilizing voters, but they are still widely used.
GOTV efforts are increasingly closely tied with data gathering and modeling, because some of the most valuable data on prospective voters comes from canvassers knocking on doors and good data helps focus the campaign’s resources where they are likely to achieve the most results. As discussed in the Gathering and Organizing Voter Information section, most of the data pertains to registered and high-propensity voters, so there are significant portions of the population that consistently get less attention from campaigns. If candidates can devise ways of moving these demographics (often minority and/or other marginalized groups) from low-propensity voters to high-propensity voters, there could be tremendous electoral benefit.
Surprisingly, clipboards with handwritten notes that need to be manually entered into a database were still being used by about 50% of campaigns, according to one survey.4 But significant efficiencies are being realized with new apps that enable canvassers to efficiently plot routes, tailor their asks according to the data, and then upload new data based on their interactions. As these apps continue to develop they could a) significantly increase the return on investment from such efforts and b) make it a more rewarding experience for people to participate in.
While the odds of reaching potential voters on the phone have diminished as people have become increasingly impatient with phone solicitations, there are new services that enable volunteers or paid staffers to easily place calls on behalf of campaigns wherever and whenever is most convenient for them. New services also help limit the frustrating experience of not reaching human beings, by calling a series of numbers simultaneously and connecting the caller immediately to whomever answers. This also presents the prospect of increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of peer-to-peer outreach efforts.
If data sets get overlaid with people’s social graphs, the potential for volunteers to do this kind of outreach via e-mail and social media, in a targeted manner, could increase significantly.
There continues to be significant innovation in the area of diminishing barriers to registration and voting through non-partisan outreach efforts and online applications (such as TurboVote or Long Distance Voter) that streamline the process and remind users of what they need to do and when, where and how to do it. Some groups are starting to leverage mobile “geo-fencing”5 technologies, which enable campaigns or non-partisan actors to notify individuals when they are within a certain geographic range (e.g., close to their polls) and to provide customized information about their polling place and how to get there.
Offering rides to the polls has been a staple of GOTV efforts for decades. Ride sharing services like Uber and Lyft now present the prospects of radically expanding the reach of such programs. Uber experimented with free rides to the polls in the recent Canadian election and Lyft is developing related services as well.6
Peer pressure has always been a powerful factor and has been shown to increase turnout, if voters are aware of the voting rates of those around them. Social media present a new frontier for leveraging this effect as platforms like Facebook, Instagram and others provide simple ways to let your peers know when you have voted and to increase the social pressure to vote or provide friendly modes of “competing” to see who can mobilize more people to vote. As one our experts said, a “huge untapped gamechanger on this front would be to get a company like Facebook or Google to really go all in on GOTV. The impact of such an initiative could be orders of magnitude bigger than almost any politically viable policy changes currently being considered.”
Snail mail should not be overlooked in this context either. The same forms of social pressure can be applied through direct mail without relying on people to do anything via their social media networks.
Lastly, while it is illegal to offer “expenditure to any person, either to vote or withhold his vote,” there are creative ways in which private companies can indirectly induce more voting. Starbucks cannot legally offer a free coffee to someone because she voted, but they could host events or offer special discounts to everyone on Election Day to encourage more voting. Likewise, employers can give employees time off to make voting easier.
Political Director, Democratic Congressional Committee
It’s generally the state party committees that subsidize fieldwork in Congressional races, and often not until the last weeks of the campaign. Both candidates and parties realize it would be better to start earlier and do more in the field – so strategies for making that easier and more affordable could be of real interest.
Anton Vonk Associate Professor of Political Science, University of California, Santa Barbara
This is an area ripe for disruption because campaigns will inevitably have to transform their strategies for turning out voters as changing demographics and the rise of new technologies transform the way people relate to each other and to politics.
Chief Revenue Officer, Media Group of America / Former Republican Media and GOTV Consultant
Social media and technology can revolutionize the way campaigns drive supporters to the polls. With the proliferation of social media to drive turnout and major technology companies taking a focus on civic engagement both domestically and abroad, I imagine over the next 20 years we’ll see increased voter turnout during federal elections. The big question will be how can we use those same tactics at the local level and get people excited to go out and vote for city council and school board elections.
Executive Director, NALEO – National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials
Candidates and campaigns only talk to highly likely voters, and like it that way. They do not want to introduce new voters into the electorate whose behavior they do not know.
Executive Director, Lincoln Network
“Get out and vote” is where campaigns can create huge gaps between true public sentiment and election results. To achieve a representative democracy, we need to ensure people get out and vote, regardless of constituency.
Former Field Organizer, Obama for America / Co-Founder of Resident Association of Greater Englewood
The idea of large private corporations offering deals, special events, etc. worries me. A people powered playbook should focus not on increasing turnout at large (or decreasing ROI on the traditional playbook) but on increasing ROI of people powered campaigns themselves. That way, in low-turnout elections, the people powered campaign that knows how to mobilize its voters has a greater chance of winning. A focus on tools and methods that enable and optimize volunteer door-to-door canvassing, phone banking and targeted outreach to friends online will have tremendous impact.
Executive Director, Take Back Our Republic / Campaign Manager, Dave Brat
Campaigns tend to think money is your greatest resource. We believe volunteers are your most important asset, and ensuring their time is effectively utilized is both good campaign practice and critical to developing a people powered playbook.
Account Manager, Snapchat / Former Media Associate at Bully Pulpit Interactive
I feel that ride sharing apps like Uber and Lyft are going to be the new shiny toy for 2016 Get Out the Vote Efforts. These services have become increasingly popular in the past few years, and they now have drivers in cities and towns all across the country. Since both companies preach social responsibility, will they offer free rides to-and-from polling centers? With enough outreach, that could have a significant impact on voter turnaround in 2016. I’m curious to see what percentage of first-time voters use ride sharing apps to get to the polls in 2016. I’d also be curious to see what types of efforts these companies make to give senior citizens rides to the polls, even if they don’t have the apps themselves.
Professor of Public Policy, Political Science and Environment, Duke University
Given the importance of broad citizen participation in sustaining democracy, insights into voter mobilization are crucial. Scholarship that subjects tactics and other approaches to rigorous scrutiny can influence campaign strategy and shift greater attention to low-propensity voters.
Visiting Professor of Political Science, Yale University
New research on voter behavior is opening up new approaches to increase voter registration and turnout, perhaps the most important factor in increasing people power.
Senior Fellow & Director, New America CA
Many campaigns are still using old lists and robo calls to do GOTV. Getting technology into the hands of young campaigns that allows them to understand who their voters are and what they want would be a hugely important way to help them connect with voters and track those connections so that voters feel like a part of the electoral process.
Former Senior Director, Code for America
There is no getting around the fact that personal, 1:1 campaigning is expensive. You might be able to lower the cost some but probably not significantly. Also, don’t underestimate the sense of empowerment and achievement volunteers get from finishing a call sheet, entering data, etc. If you make that process too efficient you risk disempowering your volunteers.
Executive Director, The National Institute for Civil Discourse
For as long as our campaigns for public office are distorted by massive infusions of money, the only antidote for us to achieve the ideals expressed in our founding documents re the rightful role of we, the people are massive infusions of votes.
All answers: 1 = strongly disagree / 5 = strongly agree
How much do the conventional tactics for achieving this objective influence how reliant campaigns feel on narrow subsets as opposed to broad cross-sections of the electorate?
How much do you think the tactics for achieving this objective are likely to change in the coming decade?
How much opportunity do you see for advancing more People Powered tactics for achieving this objective via each lever?
Increase People Powered ROI
Decrease Conventional ROI