Did you pledge to vote this year? How political science research can be applied to political campaigns

If you were on the William & Mary campus at all this semester, you might have been asked to sign a “Pledge to Vote” card by an organizer working for the McAuliffe campaign, or even the Sierra Club. In just a few years, voter pledge cards have become important parts of campus political organizing, particularly for Democratic campaigns.

While they might seem like a waste of time, campaigns have started taking these cards seriously thanks to a 2004 working paper by Donald Green titled “The Effects of an Election Day Voter Mobilization Campaign Targeting Young Voters.” In the paper, Green used a field experiment to demonstrate that young voters in New Jersey voted at higher rates when called on Election Day and reminded, and that this effect was strongest for individuals who had been previously contacted and had told the canvasser that they would vote. Translating this to use for a campaign, Rock the Vote and several other groups interested in youth turnout created “Pledge to Vote” postcards to get young voters to commit to vote and then mailed them back right before Election Day as a reminder. In my experience, pledge cards are sometimes misapplied (pledges are often biased toward individuals who are already likely to vote, rather than including infrequent young voters who might benefit most from a reminder), but they are an interesting example of how political campaigns are paying attention to political science research and working it into their strategies.

Here at the SNaPP Lab, we’re also working on several projects that could have really cool campaign applications:

  • Professor Settle and the Social Anxiety group in the Lab are working on interesting research on how personality differences, particularly in response to anxiety, may influence who participates and who withdraws from contentious political situations. This research could be useful for campaign targeting—voters likely to respond favorably could be targeted with traditional messaging about the importance of an election, while those more likely to withdraw could be targeted with less anxiety-inducing messages in order to increase turnout for both groups.
  • The Lab’s Online Political Discussion group has been looking at ways in which online political discussion is both similar to and different from traditional face-to-face political discussion. A better understanding of how people discuss politics online could be useful for campaigns that are increasingly trying to get their message out on the Internet.
  • My senior honors thesis looks at how political direct mail can turn out infrequent voters at higher rates by combining social pressure mobilization tactics with loss aversion related to issues in the election. If it works (fingers crossed), political campaigns could use this technique as a new tool to increase turnout at low cost.

drew’s advice for graduate school applications


—Drew Engelhardt

  1. Make sure that grad school is something you want to do
    1. I’m assuming that since you’re reading this that step 1 isn’t a worry.
  2. The GRE!
    1. I recommend taking it near the end of the summer before your senior year. This will give you the summer to prepare for it and also allow you opportunities to retake it in the fall. From my understanding, the primary score graduate admissions committees look at is the quantitative portion. Schools will usually post score ranges for admitted cohorts. You should shoot to have both your verbal and quantitative scores at or above the 80th percentile.
  3. The statement of purpose
    1. Be sure to weave answers to these in your statement: What research question(s) interest you? Are there any readings from classes that you found inspiring and relevant for your research?
    2. Also include experiences at WM that shaped your interests. What research work have you done? Have any classes or professors been especially influential?
    3. Crucial points: How does school X fit with your interests? What faculty do you want to work with? Are there institutes or other organizations affiliated with the university related to your research interests? Be sure to demonstrate knowledge about the research your professors of interest have done. Browse their CVs and skim the abstracts of papers related to your interests.
      1. Be sure to demonstrate knowledge about the research your professors of interest have done. Browse their CVs and skim the abstracts of papers related to your interests.
      2. Tailor this section for each application. It’ll ease the writing process.
    4. Write. Rewrite. Write some more. Getting started on the statement of purpose is crucial. Having an initial draft finished by the middle of September would be a decent goal. Send the draft to friends for a proofread, but find a professor or two to work through the revision process with you. There will be several drafts. It’s all part of the process.
  4. Letters of recommendation
    1. Find your letter writers earlier. Give them plenty of advance warning. While your professors will want to write for you, they’re busy. Usually they’ll have instructions about materials they want you to provide, too. Follow those and follow up. Don’t forget to remind them about due dates–they’re human, too.
  5. “Tech up”
    1. Methods. Methods. Methods. Make sure to demonstrate some familiarity with statistical methods in your statement of purpose. If you haven’t, plan on taking the quantitative methods class offered by the government department the fall of your senior year. If you have, consider taking some of the econometrics course in the economics department. These classes will help you transition into the graduate methods sequence.
      1. Aside: The methods courses I took (Quantitative Methods, Introductory Econometrics, and Cross-section Econometrics) have so far helped me immensely and I’m only one month in (as of this writing). Nothing says “welcome to grad school” like being assigned to replicate the data analysis done by an eminent scholar in your field who just so happens to also be the instructor of your class.
    2. Consider familiarizing yourself with multiple statistical analysis platforms. Stata and R are the primaries. This doesn’t require expertise, but including a line in your statement of purpose, or a mention in your CV, may get your brownie points. Regardless, comfort with multiple statistical packages will help you transition into your program’s stats sequence. Moreover, versatility here will increase the number of collaboration opportunities open to you because faculty vary in the programs that they use.
    3. LaTeX. LaTeX is a typesetting program that many political scientists use. It’s useful for formatting equations, among other things. Like the multiple stats packages, it will be useful to at least familiarize yourself with the program and acknowledge this on your CV.
  6. Ask for help! There may be others going through the same process who you can collaborate with. I’m also more than willing to answer questions about the application process, what to do after you’re admitted, or what to expect in grad school. My email is andrew.m.engelhardt [at] vanderbilt.edu

Richmond Newspaper’s Election Coverage Applicable to Obamacare Project

Virginia’s Gubernatorial Election is right around the corner. The negative advertisements are all over TV, the candidates personal lives are being made evermore public, and soon, get-out-the-vote initiatives will be in full force. However there seems to be a general consensus amongst voters that neither candidate is the right man for the job. All tough frustrating, this election makes for interesting coverage by local news. I’m a native Richmonder and am familiar with the local paper’s (The Richmond Times Dispatch) practice of ALWAYS throwing their support behind a gubernatorial candidate. Thus I was interested when they announced (via this article http://www.timesdispatch.com/opinion/our-opinion/today-s-top-opinion-the-election-forgetting-by-the-election/article_6a2c5e41-20f3-561a-a25d-52eedf4741f3.html) that they “cannot in good conscience endorse a candidate for governor”. All throughout the Summer and early Fall the Times has been quite negative towards both candidates but this has become the final nail in the coffin. The question remains, when a prominent local news paper says they will not support a candidate because they are disgusted with the options, will voters be effected? Will people go to the polls, will write-in votes become significant, will people take the election seriously?

This comes at a very interesting time for me personally. Working on the SNaPP Lab’s Obamacare project our team currently in the process of collecting local news paper data from all 50 states from August 2009 (during the heat of the health care debate) to see how local newspaper frames may shape public opinion. The case in The Richmond Times Dispatch will provide a sneak peak into this question, measured by voter turn out and election results. This year’s election will certainly be an interesting one, with strong political implications as well as an interesting case for those in political psychology.