What experiments show is the best way to win campaigns…Why isn’t anyone doing it?

Vox.com — There’s a refrain we hear about political campaigns every election cycle: “this year, campaigns waged an unprecedented ground game, having a face-to-face conversation with almost every single voter.”

U.S. Senator Mark Udall glances down at phone packet and talking point materials while waiting to be introduced at a canvass kickoff campaign on October 25, 2014 in Thornton, Colorado.

Baloney. As academics who study campaigns, we hear this claim all the time. But we also know it’s important to investigate whether data backs it up. We did. And it doesn’t. In fact, there’s a paradox at the heart of American campaign craft. Mountains of rigorous research show that campaigns should be having personal conversations with voters at their doors. But, campaigns spend almost all their money on TV ads – and, every year, most voters say they’ve never had a conversation about the election at their door. What gives?

Why campaigns’ “ground game” matters

By far the most effective way to turn out voters is with high-quality, face-to-face conversations that urge them to vote. How do we know? Nearly two decades of rigorous randomized experiments have proven it.

Alan Gerber and Don Green ran the first of these “field experiments” in 1998. The professors randomly assigned voters to receive different inducements to vote: some received postcards, some received phone calls, some received a visit from a canvasser, and some received nothing.

The experiment found that voters called on the phone or sent postcards were not noticeably more likely to vote than those sent nothing. But canvassing was different. Just one in-person conversation had a profound effect on a voter’s likelihood to go to the polls, boosting turnout by a whopping 20 percent (or around 9 percentage points).

The nearly two decades since Gerber and Green’s first experiment have consistently borne out their finding that personal conversations have special political potency. Hundreds of academics and campaigns have tested the impacts of various campaign tactics with randomized field trials. High-quality canvassing operations emerge as consistent vote-winners. On the other hand, impersonal methods have consistently failed to produce cost-effective results, no matter how you slice the data or which populations researchers examine.

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