When door-to-door damages your campaign

When Door-to-Door damages your campaign

Have you ever wondered if door-to-door campaigning is really effective? Is it worth the time and effort?

In 2010, researchers from George Mason University answered these questions in a first of its kind study of candidate door-to-door campaigning released this past August. Their discoveries are a must read for every Republican candidate.

The researchers found that some types of door-to-door greatly increase candidate support while other types had no effect. But their most shocking observations found in certain situations a candidate’s door-to-door effort actually suppressed voter turnout.

Researchers Jared Barton, Marco Castillo and Ragan Petrie partnered with a Midwest Democratic candidate’s campaign for county legislature to create the door-to-door experiment. They randomly divided a universe of likely Democratic and Independent (unaffiliated) voters into two list groups. One list would receive a literature drop with no direct interaction, while the other list would meet the candidate in door to door.

The candidate practiced and delivered the same line on every door-to-door visit to maintain consistency across the study:

“Hello, my name is George Mason.* How are you? I’m running for County Board, and I’m here today to ask if you have any questions about my campaign or ideas for our community, and to ask for your vote this Election Day.”

[*Candidate name changed to protect anonymity]

After multiple passes, the candidate reached 59% of the door-to-door list and nearly all the lit drop households were reached with the first attempt.

On Election Day, the candidate received the majority of votes and won the election.

It seemed that the door-to-door had paid off. But how much?

The researchers conducted a post election telephone survey asking voters how they ultimately voted. The results were impressive. After accounting for other influences, voters who were visited by the candidate door-to-door were 20% more likely to vote for the candidate than those who were targeted only with the traditional lit drop.

They then broke down the door-to-door by partisanship. The Democratic voters the candidate met door-to-door were only slightly more likely to vote for him at the polls. However, Independent or unaffiliated voters were 49% more likely to vote for the candidate after the same interaction. Nearly all of the positive door-to-door support came from Independent voters.

The researchers concluded that the candidate’s door-to-door made an impact because it was viewed as a “high cost” interaction. This means the voters appreciated the gesture and valued of the candidate speaking with them individually and personally.

But the study gets even more interesting. At each door-to-door or lit drop the candidate randomly varied the literature that was dropped or personally gave to voters. One palmcard had a generic message with issues tailored to moderate district voters. Another had a get out the vote (GOTV) message. The GOTV palmcard attempted to make voting easy and approachable, by clearly listing steps.

The researchers hypothesized voters in both the lit drop and door-to-door universe would have greater voter turnout from the GOTV messaged palm card versus the generic. But when the actual data was analyzed the opposite was true.

The GOTV palmcard had actually LOWERED voter turnout!

Upon reexamining the palmcard’s GOTV message (see below), the researchers concluded that the multiple steps of voting actually increased the perceived difficulty of voting.

Palmcard from Study

Image Source

Think about that…

Specifically describing each step of voting made people less likely to vote.

The craziest part? Personally receiving the GOTV card from the candidate made people less likely to vote. Approximately 7.4 percent less likely when measured against the control group.

The personal interaction with the candidate normally highly valued and appreciated was overpowered by the GOTV messaging of the palmcard.

Further review found those not voting who received the GOTV card were the lowest propensity voters in the study. Ironically, these were the very people the “get out the vote” message was designed to impact.

What does this all mean for candidates?

Three major findings of this study:

  1. Door-to-door interactions between the candidate and the unaffiliated or independent voter are very effective and persuasive. Voters appreciate the perceived high cost of the interaction and it significantly increases the likelihood of their vote.

  2. Door-to-door to partisans is not an effective use of time. Voters of the same party are not significantly more likely to vote for you after meeting you door-to-door.

  3. Your GOTV messaging matters. Poorly written or unclear GOTV messages can actually suppress your vote and negate the positive impact of your door-to-door.

What to do:

  • Focus door-to-door activity exclusively on likely unaffiliated or independent voters by making multiple passes through that universe. These interactions could increase a voter’s likelihood of voting for you by as much as 49 percent.

  • People actually read your campaign material even if they don’t go to the polls.

  • GOTV messages need to be clear and easy to understand but not too detailed. You don’t want to increase the perceived cost and hassle of voting and lower voter turnout.

Read the full study: “What Persuades Voters? A Field Experiment on Political Campaigning”


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.