Friday, October 31, 2014

They mean to drag you out to vote

Are political robocalls driving you mad as we approach the end of the campaign season? Take them as a sign that the candidates and propositions that pay for them are as close to their wits end as you are.

Robocalls don't work. The research has been repeated over and over. The only people who tout them as effective are selling them. We hate having our voice mail flooded with unsolicited messages and we certainly are not convinced by recorded promptings.

So why do campaigns buy them? Because they are dirt cheap. And because at this stage, campaigns have run out of useful methods, within their budgets, to contact voters.

The arrival of Big Data in campaigns -- that is, of increasingly sophisticated and accurate ways to select voters who can be profitably targeted for turnout -- may be reaching the limits of its real world usefulness. Sure, a good, intelligently enhanced list of voters can point a campaign to potential supporters. Enhancement definitely includes the ability to follow these voters into their social media worlds. Coupled with smart polling, a campaign may even know what it might say to those selected voters. The potential seems either awe-inspiring, or freaky, depending on how you look at it.

But only the most well-funded campaigns will be able to deliver messages in forms that are attractive and audible to the targets. The campaign arena is just too cluttered.

The New York Times interviewed high end campaign consultants about this.

... as Joe Rospars, the founder of the Democratic digital agency and technology firm Blue State Digital, put it, “The science is ahead of the art.” An analytics team can help a campaign make “a much more targeted buy,” he explained, but that alone will not offer a particularly efficient return on investment if the ad is still “just a white guy in a suit.”

... “It’s very easy to get overwhelmed with all the possibilities you have,” said Alex Kellner, the digital director of Terry McAuliffe’s successful 2013 bid for governor of Virginia and now a director at Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic digital marketing firm. “More campaigns are moving in the direction of having that freak-out moment for a couple of days and saying, ‘Oh my gosh. Here’s all we can do. How can we get it all done?’ ”

The answer for some campaigns, simply, is that they cannot.

The combination of Big Data and careful political science research on what moves voters is reshaping campaigns. But these techniques work best at a grand scale with vast sums of cash available.

We're into the dregs of the season now. In hot campaigns, this is the moment when armies of door knockers -- old fashioned people-to-people contacts -- still can make a small difference, all within the political environment that the more sophisticated techniques have created for them over a long season.
Political science research has turned up only one simple, cost effective way to reliably increase voter turnout. Apparently, despite the reality that outside of Presidential years, less than half of eligible voters bother to vote, we definitely think of ourselves as people who value our ballots and therefore are "good" citizens. One of the curiosities of post-election polling is that more people say they voted (especially for the winners) than actually did. We like our self-image as voters, responsible participants in citizenship and society.

Information indicating which individuals actually voted is part of the public record. It doesn't show who you voted for, that's secret -- but whether you cast a ballot.

Experiments have proved that sending potential voters notices saying that their neighbors will be alerted after the election whether they voted is highly correlated with increased turnout. The tactic -- "voter shaming" --drives turnout like nothing else campaigns have come up with. Social pressure works.

This year, TPM reports that conservative PACs are trying out voter-shaming tactics in Alaska and Arkansas. Some recipients of these messages are outraged.

"It's nobody else's damn business."

I wonder whether campaigns will invest in measuring whether backlash exceeds the gains from these efforts. I suspect they will; Big Data marches on. I'm enough of a campaign geek to also wonder whether smart practitioners of the "art" of politics can figure out how to use this voter-exposure lever without setting off the backlash.


Hattie said...

Why don't candidates go door to door? That is what's effective!

janinsanfran said...

In local campaigns, smart and energetic candidates still do go door to door. I have a friend running for school board in a district in Oakland and if she wins, that will be how she's done it. That and getting enough endorsements from groups/people known to her community to rise to the level of a serious prospect.

Where it all goes completely wacko is when (usually corporate/outside) money floods into local campaigns, tilting the playing field.

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