Monday, May 18, 2015

Might campaign volunteers do more harm than good?

Political scientist Seth Masket discusses a paper about electoral organizing that asks an interesting question:

... could some volunteers actually end up hurting the campaign?

....It's hard to beat the sophistication with which modern campaigns match an ad to its intended target. ...But it's an entirely different story when it comes to recruiting campaign volunteers. Campaigns can't build canvassers the way they can manufacture television ads; they're dependent on the available pool of local volunteers. Who actually volunteers to give up their time to walk precincts and knock on doors in the weeks prior to an election? It's really not your average American. It's hard enough to get the average American to vote in most elections.

... those who will actually offer their labor tend to be somewhat wealthier, whiter, more educated, and more liberal than the electorate as a whole. ... What's more, the volunteers often aren't from the same area to which they're being deployed. ... [this] means that these volunteers will be canvassing in neighborhoods where nobody knows them and in which they don't know any of the local customs or cultural touch-points.

He goes on to point out the tough fact: even wildly successful door to door campaigns only move the needle in elections a percentage point or maybe two. So if there is a risk that mismatched canvassers can deliver a "wrong" or unwelcome message, is it worth recruiting and sending them out?

My decades of working in campaigns suggest a number of thoughts.
  • Better "data" -- better information about who the potential supporters on voter lists are -- has enabled more sophisticated messaging. But this stuff is still not all that sophisticated. Maybe you'll succeed in targeting Cantonese or Spanish communications to household where someone speaks the language, but often you'll get it wrong or the non-English language is not the preferred mode of communication by voters in the household. Maybe you'll remind a church goer of why the teachings of their faith support your position; but maybe such reminders merely annoy them because Father is so pushy with the kids. Appropriate, appealing messaging isn't easy.
  • As current rules increasingly encourage people with money to burn to play in campaigns, voters are deluged in propaganda -- mailers, robocalls, TV ads. They become immune to most of it. The consultants who order, design, and produce the various ads make out like bandits; the candidate or cause, not so much so.
  • Academic research has given us a pretty clear idea of the only people-intensive tactics that have any impact on overcoming inertia among most non-habitual voters. Door knocking can work; less so, but still sometimes worthwhile, are phone calls (especially before harassed targets start refusing to answer.) Both are much more effective when the campaign volunteers and operatives doing them are neighbors of the targets. But how to talk with voters can be taught, if campaigns can use their polling to condense their messages to simple points and then invest the time to train volunteers to use them, including practice. Volunteers need to internalize the important points, beyond just reading a script. This is possible (if you have a sensible message to deliver) but it takes effort and time.
  • Because all this is hard and expensive, the temptation is for campaigns to avoid the messy business of attracting and training volunteers. Why not just depend on ads and perhaps a few paid canvassers? I think this is a mistake. Campaign organizers should think of the volunteer program as a kind of message delivery which operates on a different level than other communications. Every volunteer you turn out is embedded in a social network. Phone programs using Facebook data can help you call through targeted voters' social networks; every individual you recruit introduces you into his/her social network directly. Even if you get the wrong people to send to particular doors, you spread the campaign simply by drawing in individuals to help.
  • What to do with people who seem to be the "wrong" messengers? Remember that some of them will do fine if trained. Yes it takes smarts and tact to figure this out. Some volunteers can do this, by the way. Put others to work on something besides door-knocking. Use them to drive the right messengers who are knocking on the doors to their targets and to deliver water and refreshments. Send them out to beg stores for the refreshments. If really stuck, use them to wave signs strategically (there's no evidence this gets out your vote, but it seldom does harm.) And make them into recruiters of yet more volunteers on the phones. Every volunteer is worthwhile, because the sheer volume of volunteer activity moves your campaign deeper into the real world social networks of communities.
It's easy to get sick of the permanent campaigns into which U.S. democracy has devolved. With all the money, glitz, and phony posturing, it can be actually repulsive. But democracy only works when people participate in it. We can make it possible for people to do that well and effectively.

1 comment:

Hattie said...

Good thoughts here. Local connections are what's most important.

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