In one of the more bizarre stories to come out of the leadup to the Iowa caucuses, Ted Cruz’ campaign was handing out voting report cards to households giving out “F”s to individual household members and their next-door neighbors. One recipient, Tom Hinkeldy, was not terribly pleased and pledged to caucus for Rubio instead. So just how bad could this mailer have been? See for yourself:
Most normal people at this point are asking themselves what could possibly have been going through the heads of the Cruz campaign to do such a thing. It turns out it’s not quite as crazy as it seems.
Until fairly recently there wasn’t much data to say what kinds of voter outreach efforts actually increased turnout. In the past decade, however, there has been a concerted effort by groups of campaign professionals and political science academics with an applied bent to test various forms of voter outreach. These studies have revealed a treasure trove of data about how to write effective scripts that lead to increased voter engagement.
For instance, we know that getting voters to sign a pledge card for a candidate significantly increases their loyalty to the candidate and their likelihood to vote. We know that telling voters there will be a high turnout ironically increases their likelihood to vote even though it means their vote is likely to matter less, because they feel like if everyone else is voting, they should, too. We know that thanking them for “being a voter” is more effective than thanking them for voting, probably because it gives them a sense of identity as the sort of person who consistently votes. We now know that robocalls and lawn signs are almost useless, that door-to-door precinct walking is the most effective thing you can do if you have the resources to do a lot of it, and that phonebanking remains the best way to have effective conversations with the largest numbers of voters given limited budgets (though its efficacy is decreasing somewhat over time.)
One of more controversial findings from all of this research is that using public pressure and shame actually has a remarkably strong effect on turnout. A number of studies have been done on this phenomenon, perhaps the most striking of which was conducted in Michigan in 2006:
Applying social pressure has been proposed as a way to increase voter turnout in the United States. To study the effect of increased social pressure on turnout, researchers sent households one of four randomly selected mailings eleven days before Michigan’s August 2006 primary election. All four mailings increased turnout, but informing households of their neighbors’ past voting records raised turnout among registered voters by 8.1 percentage points, making the mailing about as effective as in-person canvassing.
That is music to a field director’s ears. Canvassing is incredibly personnel- and time-intensive. If you can send out a mailer that has as much effect as door-to-door canvasser, it’s like having a secret super-weapon. The problem, of course, is that while it can be effective, it also runs the risk of blowback from some privacy-conscious supporters and even negative media stories under unfavorable circumstances.
So campaigns usually either avoid these tactics in order to play it safe, or use them lightly and sparingly. Report card formats have been used with used from time to time: MoveOn.org did send voters a “voter report card” in 2012, which simply compared the voter’s card against the neighborhood average in a comparatively gentle way. Republican groups have been a bit more aggressive: “Grow Missouri” used a stronger version of the tactic in 2014, resulting in a slew of negative media stories and complaints. To double down on the tactic in a deliberately insulting way would be the mark of a desperate or tactless campaign.
Enter Ted Cruz, who isn’t exactly known for subtlety or tact. His campaign’s version of the social pressure mailer is by far the most egregious example I have personally seen of the social pressure tactic. And it deserves to backfire on him in a big way.