Pledges and voter turnout

Voter Pledge cards

The Virginia governor’s race showcased a successful Democrat voter turnout tactic that the right has been slow to adopt – vote pledges.

In a post-campaign analysis, Politico explained that canvassers for Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s campaign began knocking on doors in early 2013. The McAuliffe supporters identified during these early efforts were asked to fill out a voter pledge card, which is essentially a “promise” to vote in November. At doors, rallies and special events, the campaign collected these pledge cards from supporters and kept them until just before Election Day. At that point, the cards were mailed back to the individuals who pledged to vote. The McAuliffe campaign collected and returned more than 80,000 of their supporters pledge cards in a race decided by only 55,000 votes.

The Left first started using this tactic in 1996 with the Rock the Vote Voter Pledge - Rock the Votecampaign. For that election voters were asked to both sign a pledge they would vote and to fill out their “I will vote because ” response. Researchers found that those who filled out both the pledge and recorded why they were voting were significantly more likely to vote in the 1996 presidential election.

The Left has broadly used voting pledges ever since, but especially in 2012 with both pledge cards and email. In many target states, Obama supporters received campaign emails asking them to pledge to vote and to give a reason for voting. The campaign sent back emails to these supporters prior to the election reminding them of the reason they gave when they made their pledge to vote.

Democrat Corey Booker used this pledge tactic in New Jersey for his special-election campaign for US Senate campaign in October. This tactic was so important that President Obama even recorded a YouTube video asking voters to pledge to vote for Booker. You can still see this video on Booker’s campaign website.

Corey Booker's plan to vote video with Obama

Good campaign tactics like this don’t have borders. In Canada, Naheed Nenshi, the Mayor of Calgary, added a special Pledge to Vote section to his website during his successful reelection campaign. Nenshi even added a pledge counter to the web page showing that more than 12,000 Calgarians pledged to vote.

Unfortunately, few Republicans have adopted voter pledges. One exception is Scott Walker’s campaign and the Wisconsin Republican Party who
Naheed Nenshi pledge to votehave embraced the tactic with the website

Why has this tactic become so ubiquitous on the left? Because it works.

Why does the pledge to vote work?

Individuals respond to foot-in-the-door persuasion techniques. Basically an individual is first asked to perform a simple, relatively painless task, like sign a petition or a complete a voter pledge card. Once they make this small commitment to a cause they are much more likely to follow through on a larger request. Researchers Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser confirmed this in a well-known study testing the foot-in-the-door technique. The researchers divided a population of suburbanites into two groups. They asked the first group if they could put up a large “Drive Carefully” sign in their yard. Not surprisingly, there were very few takers. The second group of residents was first asked to sign a petition promoting driving safety. When the researchers followed up two weeks later with the “Drive Carefully” sign request, more than half of the petition signers agreed to the lawn sign.

By first agreeing to the small request these individuals began to think of themselves as people who support careful driving and thus more likely to agree to actions that support that identity.

Vote pledge cards work the same way. Seeing your pledge to vote in your own handwriting has a serious impact. It not only reinforces a positive view of oneself as a good citizen who plans to vote, it also serves as a reminder of a commitment. Failing to vote after taking a pledge now means you’re ruining the image you have of yourself as someone who votes.

What to do?

Local Republican campaigns should adopt voter pledge cards as a standard practice. Candidates and volunteers should have every campaign supporter they identify complete one of these pledge cards during door-to-door—especially those who vote in presidential elections but not in off-year elections.

Add a Pledge to Vote section to your campaign website. Ask people to complete their name, email address, zip code and an “I will vote because” response. Email these same voters their pledges the week before the election with directions to their polling place.

Use the foot-in-the-door technique for other areas of your campaign.  Start supporters off with small requests like a $5 donation or to volunteer for an hour.  This initially campaign engagement will build more active supporters as Election Day approaches.

Sample Text for Physical Cards:

“Yes, I support [Insert Candidate name]. I pledge to vote on Tuesday, November 4th.”

“I will vote because ____________________”
City:        State:           Zip:
Check box to also Volunteer for campaign
Check box to receive text message reminder to vote on Election Day

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.

GOTV--Scripts, Tips and Tactics

Further Reading

“How Terry McAuliffe mapped his Virginia win” by Alexander Burns, Politico

“Rocking the Vote: Using personal messages to motivate voting among young adults”, The Public Opinion Quarterly

“Compliance without Pressure: The foot-in-the-door technique” by Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology


Share this Post