Is "Obama’s Bet" Worth It?

>> Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Barack Obama is a neighborhood organizer at heart. He knows the importance of getting boots on the ground and talking to people. He wants volunteers to contact every voter in America and personally deliver his message of hope and change. dday wrote a diary about how Obama’s strategy is not about top down messaging through national ads. He is not trying to change minds en masse but one voter at a time, one contact at a time. Obama is counting on winning through registering new voters and getting them to the polls. Now we have to ask the question, “Will these new voters show up to vote for Obama?”

First, let’s examine exactly what Obama is doing. He is pouring money into ground level operations. While McCain is spending his money on national level advertising Obama is opening up field offices. The last estimate was that Obama led McCain in field offices 3:1 and voter contacts 35-1. Obama is spending money on National level ads as his 6 million dollar Olympic buy suggests. He is also on the air in Indiana, Alaska, Montana, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, and Virginia as well as the 12 battleground states where McCain is on the air.

Obama is relying on the Dem registration advantage to make the difference in the closer states. This in turn relies on getting the people to the polls. So again, what gets people to the Polls?

Some research focuses on costs, such as administrative barriers, others on factors that affect the benefits of voting, including psychological influences like individual political efficacy and social connectedness, external motivation through mobilization by parties or non-partisan solicitations to vote, and the extent to which the candidates and parties offer clear alternatives. Still others cover all of these potential influences. - DANIEL STEVENS (2007). Mobilization, Demobilization and the Economy in American Elections. British Journal of Political Science, 37, pp 165-186

The research into what makes people vote has broken down into two categories. The two categories are the demographic and the political, or “mobilization-based”, models. The demographic model holds that the voters social groups, their age, their region, their education, their religion are the types of factors that most greatly impact whether a person votes or not. Mobilization based models deal with the question of campaign effects on whether a given person will vote or not. Things like direct mail, face to face contact, voter phone calls are important factors in determining whether someone votes.

Clearly, both will play a role but since this article is about Obama’s resources in ground level organization we should focus on the strength of campaign effects on voter turn out. Before talking about the specific activities Obama is engaged in and their effectiveness I would like to talk briefly about some general factors that influence turnout in elections.

The perceived closeness of elections has an effect on the turnout. In general, citizens who believe the candidate they support is doomed to defeat feel less motivated to go to the polls. This feeling may be generated in several ways and tends to have a cumulative effect were numerous messages from trusted sources exacerbate pessimism among supporters. An example of this would be the media telling voters that one candidate has no chance and cannot win. The closeness effect is more strongly felt by the non-incumbent than the incumbent. This means that the challenging party will see greater mobilization if the election is considered close.

Another factor in determining turnout is the state of the economy at the time and during the run up to the election. Depending on the incumbent party, the economy has different factors. Democrats are more interested in unemployment numbers and joblessness where Republicans are more closely tied to inflation. Bad economies have a demobilizing effect on the supporters of the incumbent party. High inflation demobilizes Republicans and mobilizes Democrats, to a limited extent, while high joblessness drives down Democratic turnout. Obama should play up the bad inflation numbers to help depress Republican turnout.

What Obama is engaged works in two parts. First, his campaign is registering voters. Then he is contacting potential voters via phones, mail, and physical volunteer contact. The registration of voters is very important as people can vote if their not registered. Being registered and identifying with a particular party is also positively associated with casting a vote for that party. However, it is also true that for irregular voters, those who do not vote in every election, the longer the time between registration and voting day the less chance that person chooses to vote. That is why the second part of Obama’s game plan is important. How important is it?

The most effective way to motivate voters is through face to face contact. Obama’s field offices and volunteers going door to door will have, potentially, the greatest impact on turnout. The two big studies regarding the effectiveness of the door-to-door canvassing were conducted by Yale’s Donald P. Green and Alan S. Gerber. Their findings indicated a significant increase in turnout. The first experiment was conducted on a smaller scale where, the 1998 midterm elections in New Haven, Gerber and Green found that face-to-face canvassing raised turnout rates from approximately 44% in the control group to 53% among those canvassed.

Gerber and Green then repeated their GOTV experiment on a wider scale for the elections in 2006.

The results indicate that canvassing significantly increases voter turnout across a range of political and social environments. These mobilization effects are significant, both substantively and statistically, and similar in magnitude to other recent experiments

Their findings indicated that 12 successful face-to-face contacts translated into one additional vote. So for every twelve people that are contacted Obama gains a vote. That is 83 votes per 1000 face-to-face contacts. They also estimated that the canvassers working in pairs could visit eight to ten voters per hour. Their final report indicated a 7.1% increase in turnout between their contact group and the control group in 2001. Gerber and green also concluded that for direct mail it took 8 mailings per voter to boost turnout by 1%.

This experiment was conducted with registered voters. This means that in some states where they might have same day registration the impact of the canvassing could have a massive effect. 100 people working 10 hours on election day in such a state could theoretically pick up over 330 votes. Done on a wide enough scale and that could really influence an election.
Obama is also conducting phone banking operations. Experiments suggest that phone banking conducted by volunteers, as opposed to commercially operated phone banking, is able to generate a three to five percent increase in the treatment group.

Another thing to consider is the experiment conducted in 2002 Michigan gubernatorial election by Michigan Democratic Party’s Youth Coordinated Campaign (YCC) in fourteen state house districts. This study addressed three methods of contacting voters for GOTV purposes. It followed up on the Gerber and Green Studies use of face-to-face contact and it also investigated phone banking and leaving door hangers on the doors of possible voters.

They concluded that door hangers increased turnout by just 1.6%. Similarly they found that phone banking yielded the same success rate, 1.6%. That is 16 voters for every 1000 calls made. The issue with phone calls though is that the contact rate is very low. The study had a contact rate of 50% meaning that any increases in contact rate will increase the number of votes created.

The most interesting finding in the study is that door hangers may actually be the most cost effective means of increasing turnout.

The one major point of departure is that door hangers are found to be an effective means of boosting turnout. A boost in turnout of 1.3% is not enough to swing most elections, but could be a deciding factor in very close elections. At a cost of $29 a vote, door hangers are competitive with more personal tactics and can quickly blanket entire neighborhoods. Thus, we believe door hangers are useful arrows in a campaign’s quiver.

- Nickerson, David Warwick, Friedrichs, Ryan D. and King, David C.,Mobilizing the Party Faithful: Results from a Statewide Turnout Experiment in Michigan(April 22, 2004). KSG Research Paper No. RWP04-018.

Obama clearly plans to bust the turnout models in the states he targets with large scale ground games. Given that the GOP base should have a lower turn out do not only to the economic factors but also a general tepidness towards their candidate the surge in Obama turnout could be the difference in several states. McCain has not been investing heavily in his ground game and is instead focusing mostly on negative tv ads. There is some evidence that suggests negative advertising has a demobilizing effect on the casual or independent voter, though that’s a whole other diary.

It is important to consider though that most of these studies look at effects of contact immediately preceding the election. The effectiveness of the contacts this far in advance of the election may be less allowing McCain to "catch up" potentially if he gets his act together, though that seems doubtful.

After reviewing the research into voter turnout I believe that Obama’s ground game will indeed be a very important part of his election if it occurs. I am not saying that turnout alone will be enough for Obama to overcome McCain though it will certainly be an advantage. We already have the registration advantage and if Obama can max the turnout that advantage will show it importance.


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