The "Voter Report Card" MoveOn Hopes Will Shame Slackers

The new science of winning campaigns
Oct. 31 2012 11:10 AM

The "Voter Report Card" MoveOn Hopes Will Shame Slackers

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MoveOn is mailing 12 million registrants in battleground states a “Voter Report Card” scoring their participation in their past five elections and comparing it to the neighborhood average, Politico’s James Hohmann reported in Morning Score.  “MoveOn will then run online ads to draw attention to the project and the fact that outsiders can figure out whether you voted or not,” Hohmann write.

Here’s a look at one of the mailers.  It arrived yesterday at the home of a New Hampshire woman who is registered as “Undeclared” (how the state classifies those without party affiliation) but otherwise likely resembles a Democratic turnout target.

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The mailer’s design marks the latest twist on the political world’s adoption of what behavioral psychologists call “social pressure.”  Experiments have shown that letting citizens know that their voting histories are publicly available—and that as a result they can be monitored and judged based on how often they cast a ballot—is the most potent known tool for driving people to the polls.  The most effective version of this technique, in which researchers tried to shame non-voters by threatening to out them before their neighbors, was tested in Michigan in 2006 and documented in this paper by Don Green, Alan Gerber, and Chris Larimer.  Much of the focus in the GOTV research world in the last several years has focussed on how to channel the psychological power of that threat into something more positive, while still letting non-voters know they’re being watched..  

In late September, MoveOn sent a message to supporters looking to raise money for what appears to be this mail program. “Two weeks ago, we ran a secret test of a new voter turnout method in a state primary election. There were 170,000 voters in the study,” the group wrote. “We just got back the results, and our new method was 3.7 times more effective, dollar for dollar, than the best techniques used by campaigns today.”

By all accounts, we’re seeing that technique in mailboxes now.  (My assumption is that the 3.7-times figure compares this method to standard canvassing, mail and phone practices, not necessarily to other versions of social-pressure mail, which are in use elsewhere.)  The groundbreaking insights: soften your  surveillance with smiling children.

Sasha Issenberg is the author of The Victory Lab about the new science of political campaigns.

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