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.