The most important campaigning article you didn’t read in 2010

Last year, Sasha Issenberg released an e-book, an excerpt from his upcoming book, called “Rick Perry and His Eggheads“. It details how Dave Carney, Perry’s campaign manager, invited four academics into his re-election campaign with a mandate to bring a scientific approach to an industry that normally runs on gut feelings and anecdotes.

But before he wrote this e-book, he write a detailed article for the New York Times, titled Nudge the Vote: How Behavioral Science is Remaking Politics.

If you are involved in running campaigns of any kind — political, union, progressive, environmental — then this article could be the most important article you can read this year:

The growing use of experimental methods — Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote, calls them “prescription drug trials for democracy” — is convulsing a profession where hunches and instinct have long ruled. Already, experimental findings have upended a lot of folk wisdom about how votes are won. The most effective direct mail might not be the most eye-catching in the mailbox but the least conspicuous. It is better to have an anonymous, chatty volunteer remind voters it’s Election Day than a recorded message from Bill Clinton or Jay-Z. The most winnable voters may be soft supporters of the opposition, not the voters who polls say are undecided. (“Undecided” may just be another word for “unlikely to vote.”) …

The experimental movement in politics began a decade ago, when the Yale political scientists Alan Gerber and Donald Green conducted a study testing the relative effectiveness of basic political tools. As the 1998 elections approached, Gerber and Green partnered with the League of Women Voters to split 30,000 New Haven voters into four groups. Some received an oversize postcard encouraging them to vote, others the same message via a phone call or in-person visit. One control group received no contact whatsoever. After the election, Gerber and Green examined Connecticut records to see who actually voted. The in-person canvass yielded turnout 9.8 percent higher than for voters who were not contacted. Each piece of mail led to a turnout increase of only 0.6 percent. Telephone calls, Gerber and Green concluded, had no effect at all.

This scientific approach applies behavioural science, organisational behavior and psychology disciplines to election campaigns.

What can unions and progressive organisations learn from this? (And note: many unions in the USA, like the AFL-CIO, are already adopting these methods.)

Firstly: Don’t rely on the above anecdotes that direct mail and telephone calls “don’t work”. This whole approach is data-driven — based on split tests and control groups.

Secondly: Challenge preconceptions. Just because your union or organisation has always done direct mail or calls, doesn’t mean they do work. Test your assumptions and try something new. For information on how to actually run a test in a live environment during a real campaign, check out Doug McKenzie-Mohr’s book on Community Based Social Marketing (available for free).

Thirdly: More broadly, the progressive side of politics should take the science of campaigning more seriously in Australia. In America, millions are being invested on both sides, while in Australia there is very little research being done in this area — and almost all of it at universities, unconnected to practitioners. (Am I wrong? I know Make Believe took a more rigourous approach to the Greens Party Melbourne campaign, but this hasn’t carried on now Bandt has been elected; and perhaps there is someone in the ALP National Secretariat who is on to this, but I haven’t seen any evidence of this.)

Lots of campaigners and organisations have a problem known as path dependency. Decisions about what we do now are powerfully shaped by what we have done before. Hopefully, this article, Issenberg’s e-book and the various other blog posts like this one help shake you off your predictable path.

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