GOTV: Boosting turnout 10 percent with a single letter

EquipGOP thank you for voting letter

Every year dozens and state and local elections are decided by just a handful of votes. In 2012, New Hampshire Republicans kept their State Senate majority by 213 votes. That same year, Maine Republicans lost their State Senate majority by a total of 1,174 votes. For close races, even a small increase in voter turn out can make all the difference.

Voter mobilization or get out the vote (GOTV) has significantly changed in the last decade. Advanced research and testing by Democrat and progressive groups has led to many new techniques and insights on motivating people to go to the polls. The greatest advances have come from applying behavioral psychology to standard GOTV techniques. Even with a limited budget, Republican campaigns and Republican town committees can adopt this—a simple one-page letter mailed in the week before the election can increase turnout by 10 percent.

Over the years, most GOTV phone scripts and direct mail messages focused on the “voting was your civic duty” and “you should exercise your right to vote”. Appealing to patriotism and citizenship seemed to work at least in the late 1980 and 1990s. But current research shows this message now has little to no effect on voter turnout when delivered by direct mail or phone.

With the civic duty message falling flat, researchers and campaigns sought other methods to motivate voters to go to the polls. Some turned to behavioral psychology for insight. Professor Robert Cialdini ran numerous experiments testing the impact of social proof, the idea that individuals are more likely act if they believe many others are doing it as well. Social proof is why smart bartenders and baristas seed their tip jar with money jar at the start of a shift. Customers are more likely to leave a tip when they believe everyone else is doing it.

Research published [PDF] in 2011 by Fordham University professor, Costas Panagopoulos, explored the influenced by gratitude on GOTV. To test gratitude’s influence on GOTV, Panagopoulos sent GOTV letters to voters in the week before three different elections in 2009 and 2010. The letters thanked the voter for voting in the previous election and told them he hoped to congratulate them again after this election. The three elections ranged from high turnout to low turnout elections.

After the elections he cross referenced the letter recipients with the vote history and found that the gratitude intervention increased voter turnout by 10 percent over the control group, which received no letter. Think about that, a 10 percent increase from a single, simple letter.

As Panagopoulos stated in the research, “The findings of all three studies unequivocally tell a consistent story: voting may be viewed as a thankless job, but thanking voters evidently makes a surprisingly big difference. Gratitude can be harnessed effectively to increase turnout.”

In a recent article in Campaigns & Elections, Democrat direct mail consultant Hal Malchow highlights Panagopoulos’ research with his own sample gratitude GOTV letter.

Thank You for Voting in 2012

Jane Doe

123 Any Street

Anytown, USA 00000

Dear Jane Doe:

Thank you for voting in 2012. I know voting takes time and trouble and the fact that you made it to the polls last year shows that you care about our country and are making your voice heard.

As you may know, voters will be going to the polls this Tuesday to choose a new mayor. This election will be important for our city and thanks to good citizens like you I am confident we can move our city forward.

If you need information on my candidacy, please visit my website at Thank you for being a voter and after the election I hope to see your name among those who are voting next Tuesday.


Fred Lister

PS–Voting records do not show how you voted but they do show whether or not you vote. So I hope that after the election, I will have a chance to thank you again for doing your part.

Malchow’s testing surprisingly indicates simplicity is the best when sending these letters. The best results came from printing these letters on one side of 70# white paper and then printing the voter’s name and address on the other side. They were then folded in half, tabbed and mailed the week before the election.

Voting Habit

Separate research shows that GOTV efforts have a spillover effect into subsequent election. As Alan Gerber and Don Green state in Get Out the Vote (pp. 140), “studies show that for every 100 voters mobilized in a given election, an additional 33 will participate in the next election.” One third of these voters had established a habit of voting.

People who voted for the first time in 2008 for President Obama were no longer new voters 2012. The Obama campaign just needed to encourage them to do it again. From voting once the perceived barriers to voting was lowered and voting seemed less difficult.

Since it is always easier to get someone to do something that they have done before the gratitude GOTV letter provides an easy way to reinforce the habit of voting.

Going a Step Further

Habits can be fragile when they are new. From Charles Duhigg research in the Power of Habit (basic overview can be read here), he breaks down the loop of every habit: a cue, a routine and a reward. For example, you get out of bed in the morning (cue), add water and grinds to the coffee maker (routine), and drink your coffee (reward).

Image Source: Charles Duhigg

Image Source: Charles Duhigg

A Republican Town Committee could use these same principles to reinforce the voting habit. Establish a Cue: send a gratitude GOTV letter the week before an election to every Republican who previously voted. The Routine: The GOP voter going to the polls. The Reward: after the election send voters a follow up thank you note or letter.

GOTV voting habit loopThis cycle would continually reinforce the voting habit with the Republicans in their town. Over time, the GOTV turnout would compound increasing overall GOP voting. These effects would have particular impact in low turnout off-year elections.

What to Do

Republican town committees should start using the gratitude GOTV letter (see below) before each election. This will both improve Republican turnout in the short and long run.

At the very least, town committees should send follow up thank you letters to every GOP voter that voted for the first time. You want to do everything possible to establish the pattern of voting in these new voters.

Join our email list to receive our free guide “Get Out the Vote: Script, Tips & Tactics”.  In the guide you’ll learn the latest GOTV research, tactics, and scientifically proven scripts that increase voter turnout.

Additional Resources

EquipGOP Gratitude GOTV Letter Template – Download the gratitude GOTV letter template (Word Doc). It is formatted for mail merge and printing. Simply change the return address and sections indicated by brackets. Then link the voter universe you want the letter mailed and hit print. Read here for proper USPS folding and tabbing rules. Or fill in your info and forward the letter template and your voter list to a printer or direct mail vendor.

Further Reading

Get Out the Vote by Don Green and Alan Gerber

Thank You for Voting: Gratitude Expression and Voter Mobilization” [PDF download link] by Costas Panagopoulos

Social Pressure: A GOTV tactic for the little guy” by Hal Malchow in Campaign & Elections

Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns by Sasha Issenburg

Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Bussiness by Charles Duhigg

Learn more about GOTV with our free guide

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About the Author

Trevor Bragdon

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Hi, I’m the founder of EquipGOP. Every election cycle I meet smart, hardworking Republicans who are running for the first time but don’t know where to start. EquipGOP's goal is to help these local Republican candidates learn tactics and strategies they need to win on Election Day.