Tag Archives: Canvassing

No Effects?

Persuasion research is usually not in the spotlight. But it’s easy to see why this study made news. A “meta analysis” summarizing 49 research studies concluded that most messages in political campaigns have little or no impact on voters.  End of story. 

It’s my vocation to understand how and when people change their minds. This requires a sense of both the art and science of engineering consent: a tall order that is never easy.  Persuasion analysis is a business that needs humility. Even so, there is no shortage of serious and not so serious attempts to uncover pathways to attitude and behavior change.  Interest in this subject feeds off of the central roles that advertising, political campaigns, and social action campaigns play in our culture.

Any study of persuasion effects must yield to the general operating principle in communication that context matters; any conclusion about the effectiveness of persuasion must usually come with a lot of case-specific caveats.  Uniformity of effects across forms as different as political canvassing and advertising is not likely.  Given that basic assumption, it came as a complete surprise to see a spate of news reports about a recent study by two young political scientists claiming that a large number of field experiments found no or minimal effects for all kinds of campaign activities we take for granted.  The media at the center of the research included television advertising, person to person canvassing, phone calls and mail. The “meta analysis” summarizing 49 research studies found little or no impact on voters in any of these forms.

The uniformity of null effects was a shock. In the past, studies have suggested a range of different effects for different media: typically, with an edge going to one-on-one meetings with voters. Those of us studying these things have a general understanding of events like the 2008 Obama campaign, where the effects of internet-energized supporters and effective block-by-block canvassing produced a convincing win. Or so we think. Was that a different time?  What has changed? There is no equivocation in the final conclusion of authors Joshua Kalla and David Broockman:

The best estimate for the persuasive effects of campaign contact and advertising--such as mail, phone calls, and canvassing--on Americans' choices in general elections is zero.  Our best guess for online and television advertising is also zero. . ."1

To be sure, few persuasion researchers find evidence for widespread effects anywhere. The prevailing view is for only limited effects, typically “post message” percentages of attitude change in the low single digits. Even so, a study that argues against any significant effects seems too bold, too panoramic, and a bit disheartening. It’s somewhat like telling advertisers they are wasting their time and money.

The authors have added some exceptions. If we accept their work, messages do shape responses to ballot initiatives and some primary campaigns.  And in an earlier study they noted that activists for transgender and gay rights did reduce prejudice when they were able to  meet people at their doorstep. Personal stories of travail or unfairness struck home for undecided listeners.

 Our soap-opera politics has perhaps wrung out the possibility of an open mind among those who are still paying attention.

But the broad suggestion of a brick wall of “no effects” in campaigns is stark, and raises a number of questions. Are the studies’ measures of attitude and behavior change too crude to detect shifts? Did being a part of a study effect the results?  This problem–sometimes called the Hawthorne Effect–arises if subjects know they are subjects, and act accordingly.

Then, too, because all of the messages were focused on political campaigns, we may have reached a point where the persistence of attitudes now is much more common than even a decade ago. Our soap-opera politics has perhaps wrung out the possibility of an open mind within those who are paying attention.  In any case, the question of what works remains partly unanswered.


1“The Miminal Persuasive Effects of Campaign Contact in General Elections: Evidence from 49 Field Experiments,” September 25, 2017, American Political Science Review.

2 “Durably Reducing Transphobia: A field Experiment on Door-to-Door Canvassing,” http://science.sciencemag.org/content/352/6282/220.

The Canvassing Imperative

Of course we can do politics at a distance through all kinds of dreary media: direct mail, tweets, television advertising, robocalls and other poor substitutes for direct citizen action.  But there’s a better option.

In the age of video politics and social media it may come as a surprise that political canvassing survives as a vital way to connect with voters.  Though for many it may seem like a stretch to actually show up at someone’s front door and ask for their support, thousands of Americans are comfortable doing it.  Canvassing is a proven way to increase a candidate’s chances.  One study indicated a 10 percent increase in the likelihood a voter will show up on election day if they have met someone from the campaign.

We have over 500,000 elective offices in the United States. Most are for small districts, featuring local candidates who cannot afford TV buys or big campaign budgets. The solution?  Put your supporters, friends and family to work going door to door and asking voters for their support.  It’s always been an important feature in American political life.  This humble approach is even credited with Barack Obama’s impressive presidential win in 2008. The former Chicago organizer seemed to remember a thing or two about mobilizing neighborhoods.  In that year thousands were mobilized for a street by street effort in key states, spreading enthusiasm from one front porch to the next.

When insiders talk about a good “ground game” this is partly what they mean.  It’s no wonder that the emerging wisdom in campaign strategizing is to put less money into video ads and more into organizing recruits to knock on the doors of the still undecided.

Social media and face to face canvassing share the common thread of a more interpersonal approach to political persuasion.  The canvas in particular is a hopeful exercise in direct citizen to citizen action.  By comparison, candidates who phone in a plea for support via robocalls seem positively lazy .

Two recent developments are reminders of the importance of canvassing. One is a new book by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes on the failed 2016 Clinton campaign.  Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign lays part of her defeat to the fact that her staff did not follow the Obama playbook of fully committing to get-out-the-vote efforts. Of course neither did the victor’s campaign.  But Donald Trump in 2016 was an outlier in so many ways that it is risky to view his path to the White House as a bellwether.

The second development comes from recent reports that some of the parties fighting for dominance in the French elections are trying out American-style canvassing. The tradition is deeply entrenched in Britain, but not across the Channel in France, where talking politics at the front door of a stranger’s home is considered unusual.  But it reflects a feature that motivates so much effective canvassing: an urgency at the grassroots to do something to stave off an election disaster: in this case, what some fear could be a Trump-style victory by far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.  Whatever the outcome of the final vote on May 7, the result is good for democracy in France.  More citizens will have engaged in meaningful contact with their neighbors on a vital question worthy of their effort.

Few householders are hostile.  And most seem surprised that someone cares enough to show up.

Of course we can do politics at a distance through all kinds of dreary media: direct mail, tweets, television advertising, robocalls and other mechanical means that are poor substitutes for direct citizen action.  But all are disembodied, remote and impersonal.  Only social media come close to rendering an impression of direct contact with others we know.  And even that is partly an illusion: something short of a genuine conversation with a  neighbor in real time and space.

A modern canvasser should not expect a cakewalk.  Many doorbells will not be answered. And some campaigns send their workers to the wrong houses (a micro-targeting challenge that is never easy).  But few householders are hostile.  Most seem surprised that someone cares enough to show up.  And all seem grateful that the canvasser isn’t launching into a lecture about eternal salvation.