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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