But Baker and the New Organizing Institute, which was created to nurture high-tech improvements to field operations and has close ties to Obama’s campaign world, downplayed that conclusion and focused on the one demographic subgroup where the voter ID messaging did seem to have power. Voters over 55 who had heard it were more likely to vote than those who got the standard get-out-the-vote nudge, an impressive 2.5 percentage points above the control. "Anecdotally I believe the reason why 55-and-up respond to the voter ID message is the legacy of the civil-rights movement,” Baker speculated. “That’s been hammered home more than with younger voters.”
This attempt to rescue good news from the experiment troubled Analyst Institute executive director Jennifer Green, a political scientist who had run voting experiments among rural villagers in India before taking her post in Washington. She knew the Milwaukee experiment would generate more than just academic interest. There was a community of liberal donors—some unenthused about Obama and only halfheartedly invested in his re-election—who had latched onto the voter ID laws as a place where they could help the broader Democratic cause. "Everyone is really concerned about the impact of voter ID laws and everybody wants to do something,” she said. “They want to know ‘How can we get people really angry to get motivated?’"
Such eagerness to simply do something could actually prove counterproductive to liberal efforts to mobilize voters, Green feared. She set out to caution progressive allies not to be drawn in by the finding about older voters or misinterpret the 1.1 percentage-point boost it delivered to the broader population as a sign that such messaging was worth deploying nationally in November. "The results support the hypothesis that the message is ineffective and could be harmful if used in place of something we know works,” she said.
Green is steeped in the body of experimental get-out-the-vote research, which—if it amounts to any sort of overarching theory of what works—makes the case that appeals to civic duty or the power of democracy have little place in motivating non-voters to go to the polls.
In 1998, postcards were sent to New Haven, Conn., voters as part of the first randomized trial ever run by field-experimental pioneers Alan Gerber and Don Green, who had been Jennifer Green’s mentors at Yale. (The Greens are not related.) One card sent to New Haven citizens warned “when people from our neighborhood don’t vote we give politicians the right to ignore us,” while another featured an image of Iwo Jima with the slogan “They fought … so we could have something to vote for.” The content may have differed, but the impact on turnout rates didn’t; both proved relatively ineffective at mobilization. By 2004, analyzing the results from dozens of similar trials for their book Get Out the Vote, Gerber and Green concluded that when trying to trigger turnout “the message does not seem to matter much.”
The adjustments to language that did matter were not political messages but ones that toyed intimately with individual voter psychology. In 2005, behavioral psychologist Todd Rogers ran his first experiment challenging a common bit of conventional get-out-the-vote wisdom. For years, campaigns would recite statistics about how many potential voters had stayed home in the last election. Don’t be part of the problem, they would beg. Rogers knew of examples in other fields where people had been coerced to good behavior by the opposite tack: hotels had increased reuse of towels by letting guests know how many other guests did, rather than cautioning them about the ecological peril of low recycling rates. When he and Gerber pitted two equally accurate get-out-the-vote reminders against one another, the one that cast turnout patterns in a way that made voting sound popular got better results. Rogers, who went on to be the Analyst Institute’s first executive director, later credited this to “the basic need for belonging.”
A legacy of that message endured in the GOTV script used in the Milwaukee experiment. “It looks like a lot of people will be voting this year in the special recall election, and we hope our community turns out, too!” canvassers were instructed to say. It was that intervention, and other subtle behavioral nudges that have become standard language in the left’s canvassing scripts, that Green credited with the only unambiguous impact that the League of Young Voters had had in mobilizing voters before the turnout: the 1.9-percentage-point effect of the standard GOTV script over the control group. That was by any measure an impressive result, particularly useful since few prior experiments had been focused uniquely on urban African-American neighborhoods. “People get approached by so many people in these national elections, but it’s different when it’s a kid from your neighborhood,” Baker said.
Many of those in Democratic politics had, reflexively, assumed that it was best to make that kid deliver the most politically engaging message at hand. But instead of telling voters there was an effort under way to disenfranchise them and other members of their community, it may have been better just to encourage everyone to go along with the crowd.