You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Democrats Dabble in Behavioral Vote Nudging

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, November 1 2010

Organizing for America is making a deal with supporters: tell us when you're planning to go and vote, and we'll remind you to actually do it.

Fascinating stuff (if too brief) in the New York Times Magazine this weekend about the Analyst Institute, the under-the-radar outfit that sprung out of the labor movement that aims to apply the same "Moneyball" techniques that the Oakland A's famously applied to winning baseball campaigns by tracking numbers to turning out the vote come election day. (We mentioned that shop very briefly in talking about the efficacy of personal endorsement emails.) In American politics, we talk a lot about campaign field programs, and how they might carry candidates to victory. But field programs are not created equal; there's a million little details baked right into how well one performs. What time should you call people at home? How do you phrase the final ask in your last emails to your list? When do polished materials do the trick, and when's it better to hand supporters a Sharpie and tell them to get busy? It's long been an art, and campaign consultants and organizers are busily working behind the scenes to turn it into a science. Here's the Times Magazine's Sasha Issenberg:

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.”)

Most of the activity on the left revolves around the Analyst Institute, a firm quietly founded in 2007 by A.F.L.-C.I.O. officials and liberal allies, which seeks to establish a set of empirically proven “best practices” for interacting with voters. The group’s executive director, a behavioral scientist named Todd Rogers, has managed dozens of experiments around the country this year. Their lessons have shaped how Democrats are approaching and cajoling the voters they think are on their side but who haven’t yet shown that they will act on their beliefs on Election Day.

Nudging isn't just theory. The Democratic National Committee is, we're seeing, trying its own hand at gently pushing people towards the voting booth by employing behavioral shaping. Organizing for America, for example, emailed its list this weekend with a note titled, "Hey, let us know when you're voting?" Supporters are asked to let OFA, the field wing of the Democratic National Committee, know when they're planning to head to the polls on Tuesday. They're calling it Plan Your Vote. "It's important that we know when you plan to cast your ballot Tuesday so we can make smart decisions about who to call and which doors to knock," reads the email from OFA. Getting a heads up from voters helps Democrats, if all goes to plan, figuring out where to target last-minute resources. But there's a more personalized, voter-centric reason for the request.

"If you make a plan and let us know today," says OFA, "we'll send you a reminder and help you stick with it, even if you end up running late or are busier than you expected." It's one humble way to edge people every closer to actually casting a vote come Tuesday.

The science of campaigning might be galloping towards the future, but plenty of candidates and party committee's are still running things on pure gut. Over on the Awl,  Natasha Vargas-Cooper reports that the Nevada Democratic Party's pen-and-paper phone-banking operation is no match for Sharron Angle's high-tech program, where "once a phonebanker has made a contact, she punches a number on the keypad to report whether the person has voted already, how they intend to vote, whether it's a wrong number or a hang-up." Vargas-Cooper's commenters point out that comparing a state party operation to an actual campaign office isn't apples-to-apples. Or cacti-to-cacti. Or whatever they say out in Nevada. But it's a reminder that while our political battles might seem stale and old, there's a flurry of innovation happening in how Americans actually campaign.