Everything wrong with Ted Cruz’s voter shaming mailer

In the final stretch before the Iowa caucuses, voters start receiving all kinds of stuff in the mail. Last minute appeals for votes, guides for where and how to vote and, well, just take a look:

As the mailer says, under the heading “VOTING VIOLATION”:

You are receiving this election notice because of low expected voter turnout in your area. Your individual voting history as well as your neighbors’ are public record. Their scores are published below, and many of them will see your score as well. CAUCUS ON MONDAY TO IMPROVE YOUR SCORE and please encourage your neighbors to caucus as well. A follow-up notice may be issued following Monday’s caucuses.

The mailer was paid for and sent by Ted Cruz’s campaign, but the footer on the mailer also suggests that it was in some way affiliated with the Iowa Secretary of State’s office. Iowa’s Secretary of State, Paul Pate, ripped Cruz’s campaign for sending a mailer that potentially “misrepresents Iowa election law.”

Recipients and the public at large are, obviously, pretty steamed at Cruz is for shaming voters into caucusing. I’m mad too, but not because I think Cruz shouldn’t be shaming people to vote; I just think he, like others who have employed the strategy, could have done a halfway decent job of it. Cruz’s campaign likes to brag about being data-driven and grounded in political science, but they’ve just taken a powerful, evidence backed method for turning people out to vote and ruined it.

Cruz’s isn’t the first political organization to use social pressure to affect voter turnout. Prior campaigns have done so, based on a 2008 paper showing that sending voters mail with their voting history and the voting history of their neighbors — coupled with a warning that another mailing would be sent following and upcoming election with updated voting histories — significantly increased turnout. Since then campaigns have employed various methods of social pressure, from reminding voters that their voting histories are public to thanking them for voting in the last election. In rare cases, outside organizations send mailers more reminiscent of the original study (MoveOn in 2012, for example), but 2016 is the first time that a presidential candidate, from their official campaign committee, used this tactic.

Oddly enough, though, Cruz isn’t the only Republican candidate to have sent this kind of mailer this past week. He’s just the candidate everyone’s mad at. Marco Rubio’s campaign sent a similar mailer to Iowa voters, but it was considered far less offensive:

Rubio's mailer, via TIME

Parts of Rubio’s mailer, via TIME

There are a few reasons why Rubio’s mailer went over relatively smoothly with voters, while Cruz’s generated a firestorm. Here are the ones that stick out:

  • The language in Cruz’s mailer is more extreme than the language in Rubio’s. “VIOLATION” is the kind of tactic spammers use to sell you auto insurance policies you don’t need.
  • Cruz’s mailer assigns the voter arbitrary scores that don’t accurately reflect their past voting history; to the extent to which people have criticized Rubio’s mailer, no one has claimed that the information is incorrect.
  • Cruz’s mailer included information about the voters’ neighbors; Rubio’s is a “report card” for the individual voter to whom the mail piece is addressed.
  • Cruz’s mailer emphasized low voter turnout; Rubio’s doesn’t.

Social pressure messaging attempts to frame the decision to caucus or vote as honoring a social norm. Key is the threat that, since voter turnout is public record, your neighbors can find out whether you voted and, since voting is a norm, not doing so amounts to non-normative behavior. All of this being true, campaigns and outside groups need to be careful to deliver this message without making voters mad at them. Shame works precisely because it carries a strong emotional affect, and that cuts both ways.

Accusing voters of a “violation” is far stronger language than the most effective social pressure messaging has ever been. The academics who popularized social pressure for political campaigns simply informed voters that their voting records are public information. They didn’t accuse the voters of violating some law that doesn’t exist — and they were still threatened with lawsuits over their research.

Speaking of violations, as the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza reported yesterday, some recipients of Cruz’s mailers have pointed out that their “scores” don’t seem to be based on their actual voting history:

Ted Cruz, via DonkeyHotey / Flickr

Ted Cruz, via DonkeyHotey / Flickr

After looking at several mailers posted online, I was more curious about how the Cruz campaign came up with its scores. On all the mailers I saw, every voter listed had only one of three possible scores: fifty-five per cent, sixty-five per cent, or seventy-five per cent, which translate to F, D, and C grades, respectively. Iowans take voting pretty seriously. Why was it that nobody had a higher grade?

In Iowa, although voter-registration information is free and available to the public, voter history is not. That information is maintained by the secretary of state, who licenses it to campaigns, super PACs, polling firms, and any other entity that might want it. So was the Cruz campaign accurately portraying the voter histories of Iowans? Or did it simply make up the numbers?

It seems to have made them up. Dave Peterson, a political scientist at Iowa State University who is well-acquainted with the research on “social pressure” turnout techniques, received a mailer last week. The Cruz campaign pegged his voting percentage at fifty-five per cent, which seems to be the most common score that the campaign gives out. (All of the neighbors listed on Peterson’s mailer also received a score of fifty-five per cent.)

Peterson, who is actually a Hillary Clinton supporter, moved to Iowa in 2009. He told me that he has voted in three out of the last three general elections and in two out of the last three primaries.

So not only is the Cruz campaign sending Iowans information about their neighbors, that information isn’t accurate. Cruz is accusing Iowans, in public, of violating a social norm that they haven’t violated. If someone told my neighbor that I was basically a bad citizen, I’d be pretty mad, too.

Cruz’s campaign also committed political malpractice by sending this from the campaign itself. Previous tests demonstrate that voter support candidates less when they hear a social pressure message from them. That’s why stronger social pressure messages are typically paid for by vaguely named outside groups like Americans for Leadership or The Student Voter Project that aren’t immediately recognizable to voters: Non-partisan appeals encouraging voter turnout are more effective than partisan ones, for obvious reasons. For candidates who want to pressure their supporters to the polls without relying on a super PAC, there are language variations like thanking supporters for having voted or caucused in the past. That way, they can remind voters that someone has noticed their past voting behavior without leaving those voters creeped out.

Finally, and this might just be the most infuriating aspect of all of this, the mailers said that voter turnout was expected to be low! This is basically the same thing as sending your friend an email saying that you’re having a party and you don’t expect anyone to come. The whole point of a social pressure mailer is to tie voting to community membership. Telling a voter that their community doesn’t vote means they would fit in better with their neighbors if they just stayed at home! To this point, the same researchers behind the original social pressure study also found, in another study, that if you actually want more people to vote, you should tell voters that turnout will be high, not low.

Lab and field experiments on social pressure and voting behavior have led to plenty of promising findings about how to increase voter turnout. These efforts sometimes push the envelope on what is acceptable to say to voters to get them to the polls — where the line falls between engagement and harassment, between a nudge and a push. But social scientists have responded to that problem by documenting the effects of blowback so political campaigns don’t overdo their social pressure messaging to the point of turning off voters. Ted Cruz’s mailer is an excellent case study in how not to use social pressure in order to increase voter turnout.


Josh Yazman
Josh is a data analyst with expertise in grassroots engagement for national and local politics and a particular interest in the behavioral psychology of voting and civic engagement. He spent five years working in northern and southwest Virginia for for candidates from Blacksburg Town Council to President of the United States. In 2013 he ran a campaign that registered over 3,000 Virginia Tech students to vote for state and local candidates and tested innovative messaging and communications tactics to persuade them to make their voices heard on election day.

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