7 Questions on GOTV with Political Scientist Donald Green

by Elena Veatch

GOTV Questions

Donald Green Shares the Latest Insights on Building Effective GOTV Programs 

Donald Green is an expert on campaigns and elections whose research helped pioneer the voter mobilization tactics that serve as conventional wisdom for political campaigns today. In August, Green released the latest edition of his book Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout with his co-author Alan Gerber. Get Out the Vote provides the latest insights from new experiments to help campaigns engage voters more effectively in 2020 and beyond. Green shared his thoughts on the trends campaigns, consultants, and organizations should keep in mind as they work to build better voter contact programs.

1.    What are some of the most important updates to the latest edition of Get Out the Vote?

We’ve added one-to-one texting into the electronic mobilization chapter in the wake of some large field experiments. During the lead-up to the 2016 general election, campaign staffers texted these individuals from a voter file list and were able to engage with them and answer their questions in real time. While friend-to-friend is arguably a more effective texting approach, this method increased turnout by 0.3–0.4% on average. Not a huge effect, but clearly greater than zero. The next step is to craft better messages and to improve targeting to bring down the cost-per-vote.

We’ve also updated the chapter on campaign events. Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen nonpartisan election festivals emerge as a promising and cost-effective approach to increasing turnout in communities. We’ve worked with groups like #VoteTogether to see if election festivals are effective tools for increasing turnout by celebrating participation in our democracy. In a 2016 pilot program, we saw a four percent bump in voter turnout precinct-wide in locations that hosted an election festival. Smaller effects were found in 2017 and 2018, perhaps due to the fact that three-quarters of the festival sites experienced rain. These festivals can’t replace the GOTV work campaigns need to conduct at the doors and through paid communications, but they’re a great way to energize communities and get people excited about voting.

2.    The new edition of GOTV talks about relational organizing. Why is friend-to-friend contact so effective in increasing turnout?

Friend-to-friend mobilization seems to be effective for the following reasons:

•    If you send a note to your personal friend, that friend is far likelier to open that message than they would be to open a message from a stranger who they have no relationship with (it’s not going to get stuck in their spam folder).
•    You serve as a credible source (presumably) to your friend. Not only are they likelier to open your message in the first place, but they’re likelier to listen to what you’re saying.
•    You can personalize these messages to make them especially effective—you can ask a friend if they want to go to the polls with you or mail in your ballots together.

3.    Is it more cost effective for groups and organizations to focus their efforts on voter registration or turnout in a presidential year?

It depends. Above all else, groups and organizations should consider their mission and target audience to figure out a voter engagement strategy that fits within their goals.

If you’re at an organization that’s prioritizing voter registration, a great place to start is with young people (particularly young people of color). One of the cheapest ways to do outreach is through schools and community colleges—there are really low voter registration rates among high school seniors who are 18, for example. 

If you’re focusing on engaging communities with higher registration and turnout rates, look to talk to people who are often overlooked by GOTV campaigns, such as Latino(a)s and Asian Americans. Campaigns are often hesitant to reach out to people who don’t reliably turn out on Election Day—talking to them through your organization might make a difference.      

4.    A lot of organizations ask us about the best ways to use social pressure to increase turnout. Do you have suggestions for striking a balance between employing social pressure effectively and preventing potential backlash?

The most effective social pressure tactics that we’ve outlined since the first edition of Get Out the Vote are usually the harshest ones. Using unvarnished language to try to motivate people to vote can seem irresistible, but that doesn’t mean it’s worth risking your organization’s reputation to do it.

The messaging chapter in the Get Out The Vote book suggests more palatable social pressure approaches that groups and organizations can utilize to prevent potential backlash to their brands:

•    You can prompt people to cast a vote to ensure their spot on a “voter honor roll.”
•    You can express gratitude to people for voting.
•    You can make the process interactive by asking people to let you know how you can help make the voting process easier for them.

Any of the above examples are effective ways to employ social pressure without risking an angry audience. I also recommend that organizations try things like a group pledge to vote to make people proud to get on board with like-minded people in exercising their civic duty. 

Anything you can do to get people to actually sign on to a social norm (in this case, voting) will make them feel more inclined to obey that norm. Get folks to pledge to vote and honor them for doing so. In vote-by-mail states like Oregon and Colorado, there are more opportunities to track who’s voting on a daily basis and award gold stars on a public voter honor roll to those who cast a ballot, for example. 

5.    What are some best practices for engaging voters online via digital ads to increase turnout?

Employing friend-to-friend contact digitally has a good track record so far, but we haven’t seen evidence that digital ads are an effective method for increasing turnout. There have been a lot of well-executed experiments with groups like Rock the Vote that just haven’t yielded the results we’ve been hoping for. We should continue to try to find ways to make digital ads more effective in a turnout context through pre-roll and other options, but currently it’s a work in progress with no clear answer.

6.    If you could run any experiment to glean insights about the American electorate, what would you test?

This would be difficult to do without a randomized design, but I’d love to gauge the effect of candidate visits on presidential election outcomes. In 2016, Hillary Clinton was lambasted for not spending enough time in states like Wisconsin and Michigan—did her absence actually decrease support for her candidacy? Let’s randomize the travel schedules of presidential candidates!

7.    Are there any other new books or podcasts that you recommend our readers check out?

I recommend John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck’s Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America. Most political scientists, including me, are still wrapping our brains around what happened in 2016. This book is a good reminder that conventional wisdom (e.g., Latino turnout will surge in response to Trump’s negative comments about Mexican immigrants) is often mistaken.


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