In field campaigns, a local messenger matters

There are a number of reasons why in-person voter contact has become a staple of the modern campaign.

Big data has allowed for highly-efficient targeting; and volunteer labor has allowed campaigns to capitalize on that targeting through waves of phone calls and door knocks which, while possibly annoying, are quite effective.

Add in the fact that our brain responds to in-person communication — especially face-to-face interactions — much differently and more strongly than other forms of communication, and you can see why both political organizations have made heavy investments in their ground games over the last decade.

However, as one could imagine, not all forms of in-person voter contact are created equal. In a forthcoming paper in the American Political Science Review, political scientists Ryan Enos and Eitan Hersh present research conducted during the 2012 campaign showing that Obama campaign staffers and volunteers were younger, whiter, richer, more female, more educated and more ideologically extreme than the voters they were contacting, which they argue could have diminished the effect of those volunteers’ efforts.

Voters respond best to people they identify with

Working America Field Manager Dave Ninehouser at a Working America member's door. (Photo by Molly Theobald for the aflcio2008)

Working America Field Manager Dave Ninehouser at a Working America member’s door. (Photo by Molly Theobald for the aflcio2008)

As the authors point out, numerous studies have shown that voters respond best to people they identify with. We are also able to infer the partisan identification of others based on appearance alone, so how volunteers look affects how voters respond to them. Furthermore, in campaign activity, demographic groups are most-successfully mobilized by members of their own group, and canvassers are more effective when canvassing in their own ZIP code.

Taken together, this has produced findings showing that when activists’ demographics don’t match those of the voters they are contacting, they can actually make voters less likely to support their desired candidate. As Enos and Hersh write:

The wrong message or messenger can be ineffective or even counterproductive. Messengers who are liable to go off-message or who, in the very appearance, portray their candidate as off-median, may do their principals more harm than good.

And campaigns in fact pair field operatives with their own demographic

This makes intuitive sense, and campaigns are well-aware of this phenomenon. Field offices take care to divide phone lists by voters above and below the age of 65, allowing older volunteers to call older voters. College campuses are organized by younger staffers who, when possible, rely solely on student volunteers. When possible, canvassers are encouraged to knock doors in their neighborhood. On the phone, volunteers are instructed to introduce themselves by identifying the locality they’re calling from, emphasizing the fact that they aren’t in some faraway call center; they’re a person from the voters’ community who can be considered a trusted messenger.

However, as Enos and Hersh point out, this kind of matching doesn’t always happen. Even the resource-rich Obama campaign, the focus of their study, was unable to keep the demographics of their volunteers aligned with the voters they were contacting. For starters, a great number of the most enthusiastic activists a people who live in the most liberal states — roughly a quarter of the campaign volunteers and staffers surveyed by the authors were working in a state they did not live in. This makes sense: Since the states these activists hail from are uncompetitive, they are directed to make calls and knock doors in neighboring swing states.

A Democratic campaign isn’t going to turn away volunteers from Maryland, New York, Massachusetts or California just because a volunteer from Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire or Nevada would be more effective. They’ll take the quantity, even at slightly lower quality.

Volunteers tend to be more extreme than the moderates they’re pitching

There are other supply-side limitations when it comes to optimally-matched voter contact. For example, as reported in the paper, activists will almost always be more ideologically extreme than moderates they are sent to persuade — that’s part of what makes them activists. Additionally, volunteers will almost always be wealthier than the voters they are targeting. Volunteering is an investment, and someone with less disposable time and money is less likely to be able to make such an investment, even if they want to.

The principal-agent problem outlined by Enos and Hersh is exacerbated by the fact that volunteers don’t stick to the script, and campaigns often encourage them not to. Especially in a face-to-face conversation at someone’s doorstep, reciting a boilerplate message is not going to do nearly as much to persuade a voter as outlining in genuine terms why you think that voter should vote for your preferred candidate. When training volunteers on the Obama campaign, we encouraged volunteers to lead with their personal story and then pivot to the campaign’s core economic message — but there was no way to verify that that’s what our volunteers were actually doing.

Enos and Hersh suggest that the issues they outline could be mitigated by keeping more extreme activists in the office doing office work, steering more moderate, representative volunteers towards voter contact. However, campaigns are already directing as many as people as possible towards voter contact — the only volunteers doing office work are those who aren’t comfortable doing anything else. From the perspective of the organizer who is managing volunteers in the office, you can direct certain activists to contact certain voters, but only in the most glaring cases do you direct a volunteer away from voter contact altogether. Again, quantity over marginal quality.

[Shrug]

So while the authors are right in that a large portion of a campaign’s voter contact efforts occurs with suboptimally-matched labor, in terms of both demographics and ideology, the organizer in me can’t help but shrug my shoulders. The findings are novel in that they focus on campaign workers themselves, rather than their effects on the electorate, but they do not present information that campaigns did not already know.  The average campaign volunteer will never be representative of the average voter, nor should we expect them to be. What’s more, on balance, the counterproductive effects of mismatched voter contact are almost certainly outweighed by the costs — in terms of volunteers not recruited and voters not contacted — associated with correcting for them.

Even the most sophisticated and well-funded campaigns are messy and somewhat disorganized, especially when it comes to voter contact. Field campaigns, in many ways, are building the plane while it’s taking off, so to speak, and will take all the help they can get. While it would certainly be better if they were always able to match volunteers with voters who looked, sounded and thought like them, simply having volunteers talking to voters in general is the next-best thing.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • Susan952

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  • I used to work for an ad agency that did direct marketing. That’s industry PC talk for “junk mail”. One out of fourteen would have been considered miraculous. The same goes for telemarketing. But I’ll admit that it’s not for everyone. It takes an exceptionally resiliant person not to take it personally when you get a door slammed in your face of get yelled at by someone supporting the opposite cause or opposing candidate. And yet, it’s worth doing.

  • The only canvassing I had done before was for the census, so I really had no idea what to expect in a political context. I found that it wasn’t for me. I don’t mind being rejected after I make a point, nobody has to agree with me, but I really didn’t enjoy having the door shut in my face before I can even get out a word. And people sneering at you like they just caught you crapping on their door mat if you are obviously on the wrong side of their political spectrum.

  • I in 10 is a pretty good result for cold calls. Did you expect something higher?

  • My experience, both as a canvasser and in organizing canvassers, has consistently been far more positive than that. Not to discount your experience, but I don’t think it’s representative.

    Either way, field research has shown that for every fourteen conversations had at the doors, the campaign gets a vote they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. While that doesn’t sound very efficient, when it comes to getting out the vote that’s *way* more efficient than mailers or TV spots, especially since the labor is largely volunteer-based.

    Short version: In terms of dollars-per-vote, in-person voter contact remains the best investment campaigns can make to turn unlikely voters into voters.

  • Having done door-to-door canvassing for a federal election a few years ago, it may ultimately result in a higher turn out, but nobody really wants to talk to canvassers. Half the doors you knock on will immediately shut in your face the moment they know why you’re there. A good majority of those people who do humor you long enough to finish your spiel, and ask for their input, are only doing so to be polite. In my experience I’d say less than 10% of the doors you knock on will ultimately result in a positive experience for the canvasser. I’m sure it varies a bit by locale, but the reality is, nobody likes someone at their door selling something unsolicited. And ultimately that is really what political canvassers are doing, no different than the guy offering to mow your lawn, pitch their God, or sell you a vacuum cleaner. Myself, I don’t even answer the door anymore unless I’m expecting something. The phone makes it that much easier to ignore calls from numbers you don’t recognize.

  • So the quibble I have with this is that the single most effective way for a campaign to get people out to vote is to come to their doorstep. If you want higher turnout, you have to be OK with talking to a canvasser every now and then.

  • DonewithDems

    Yeah, just as I hate getting telemarketing calls, I seriously don’t like campaigners on my doorstep. I would think that would be a factor to consider as well. I agree with Indigo, we need to get people to the polls, especially the apathetic young voters who don’t seem to care very much about it.

  • Indigo

    It’s so much easier to re-invent the wheel than it is to make teleportation work. By the same token, it’s much easier to rehash the known than venture into experimental territory, whether in canvassing the voters or hanging a pizza menu on the door knob. The real issue is none of that, the surface issue is getting people to the polls. They aren’t voting in large numbers, study that. Who? Why? Whadda we do about that? Should we be concerned or not?

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