Neighborly nudges to do your civic duty
Campaign strategists and political scientists studied how to nudge people to vote for more than a century. The strategists have concentrated on nudging (and shoving) people to vote for a particular candidate. The political scientists, trying to stay detached from partisanship, have studied how to nudge people to fulfill their civic duty go to the polls on election day. In the last few years the cutting edge of political science research on voter mobilization has involved a method known as a field experiment. Originally pioneered in the 1920s and recently re-pioneered by Alan Gerber and Don Green at Yale, field experiments involve randomly sending letters, airing radio and print advertisements, phoning homes, or sending canvassers door-to-door making personal pitches. The random assignment of these various forms of voter outreach is the crucial piece of field experiments – call it the “magic” – that enables researchers to calculate clean estimates for how much these nudges affect voter decisions.
Field experiments have provided a number of insights about the best ways to motivate and mobilize voters. One of the most consistent findings is that personal contact works. Sending people directly to homes is the best and, depending on the neighborhood, most cost-effective strategy for increasing turnout. Better than using impersonal channels like phone banks, mass media advertisements, or super cheap email blasts. The boost in voter turnout from this approach has been on the order of four to ten percentage points depending on the study. Now a working paper from a political science professor at the University of Chicago and three co-authors suggests that the boost might grow even more if you send a neighbor instead of a stranger to someone’s house.
Betsy Sinclair and her team worked with an organization called SCOPE (Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education) conducted a field experiment in a low-income neighborhood in Los Angeles during the 2006 election, sending volunteers into the community to nudge about 15,000 people to vote. In a twist on past experiments, Sinclair divided up the volunteers into two groups. People from the same zip code as the voters they visited – the “neighbors” – and people from other zip codes – the “strangers.” Both types of volunteers used an identical script to make a nonpartisan pitch. An yet, Sinclair finds an additional four percentage point increase among voters who spoke with neighbors – against a baseline of a 5-and-a-half percent increase for those. In other words, when neighbors nudged, voter turnout rates rose by more than 9 percentage points.
Why were neighbors so much more successful than strangers? This remains a puzzle. Even though all volunteers used the same talking points, its possible that during unscripted moments neighbors revealed their personal attachment or knowledge about the area. Or maybe voters picked up on non-verbal cues from the neighbors? Unfortunately, volunteers did not carry tape recorders or video cameras with them so volunteer-resident interaction remains a black box that remains closed. Hopefully, it will open in the future.