Why Campaign Messaging May Soon Matter Even More

This article will argue that messaging may become more relevant in politics over time and soon.

Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout by Gerber et al is a well written and known book in campaign work. Among many bits of great knowledge the book contains is the fact that statistical work shows that messaging does not have a significant effect on voter turnout. Whether get out the vote (GOTV) efforts are conducted by direct mail, phone calls or in person, messaging does not cause a statistically significant, reliable and statistically important difference. It does matter that GOTV is done and it also matters how GOTV is done. Taking a longer amount of time for a better conversation in person or over the phone has a greater impact than a robo call for example. Among the factors which matter for how GOTV is done, however, it does not seem like messaging matters much. That is their conclusion.

The question they address is how to maximize GOTV, or the number of people who show up to vote. The question they do not address is whether or not messaging has an effect on which way those people vote. The data shows that people show up to the polls regardless of the message, but it could be the case that they vote differently depending on the message. It could be the case that people really learn from these things, or it could be that they have their mind made up and the GOTV only reminds them to go vote.

Let’s presume the GOTV pattern holds for voter ID, or name recognition of candidates. This assumption is reasonable. Think about it. If Hillary Clinton is on the radio all the time then people will know who Hillary Clinton is. She has high name recognition and voter ID. On the other hand, if Hillary Clinton is on the radio all the time, this does not imply that everyone is going to vote for Hillary. It seems rather obvious that how Hillary is talked about will impact the number of people voting for her. If all the radio hosts, not just the conservatives, are bashing her and praising someone else it is reasonable to expect that less people are going to vote for her than if all the radio hosts, even the conservative ones, here praising her and bashing someone else. Maybe Hillary Clinton comes with presuppositions. Picture a hypothetical character and you will get the point.

If that logic holds then it follows that GOTV messaging may not effect turnout but could very obviously impact favorability or vote direction. In the past this still didn’t make it a big deal because we would only contact voters we knew ahead of time would vote our direction. Democrats would contact Democrats and Republicans would contact Republicans, although as we all know this rule of thumb holds less for Democrats who win even with general turnout increases.

That scenario is going away due to technology. As technology improves voter contact becomes dramatically cheaper. Mail cost has declined over time in real terms. Robo calls didn’t exist years ago and cost far less than personal calls. Social media is the prime example where you can have super targeted and effective ads for a tiny fraction of what even a cheap piece of mail would cost. Imagine that contact costs continue to decline. One day even cheapskates will be able to establish a large degree of voter contact, maybe even full contact!

While the GOTV game matters for now, if every voter is contacted then the campaign messaging game becomes even more important than it already is. We are already seeing this. Messaging is becoming more key as independents grow. The savvy political consultants know that party messaging needs to adapt or die, but even the keenest of these people haven’t seen anything yet.

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