Accentuate the Positive: Behavioral Science and Politics

As we've seen in Iowa and New Hampshire, there are many costs associated with running for elective office: staff, office space, travel, pollsters, television ads and campaign signs. Another major cost in any good campaign is their 'get out the vote' efforts. After all, if you have a great message and your supporters fail to show up at the polls, you aren't going to win. The cost of the 2012 presidential race broke a record with a cost of $2.6 billion, with $1.12 billion coming from the two candidate and the rest from outside groups and the two political parties. There are estimates that the 2016 race could end up with a total price tag anywhere from $3.5 to $5 billion.

So it really shouldn't come as a surprise that there is a great deal of academic research behind today's sophisticated get out the vote efforts. In Sunday's New York Times, Todd Rogers and Adan Acevedo of Harvard's Kennedy School wrote an interesting piece, "In Iowa, Voting Science at Work" providing an interesting look at how behavioral science research is driving successful get out the vote efforts.

Call it the carrot approach, but the positive message produces better voter turnout. So thanking people for voting in earlier elections, noting the turnout is expected to be large and walking through a potential voter's thoughts on when they will vote and how they plan to get to the polls, elicits a high rate of return through people going out to vote. The research shows us that personal accountability works as well - telling potential voters that the campaign will follow up after Election Day to check on their voting experience, for instance. The stick approach, on the other hand, suggesting the voter turnout is expected to be low or that the individual hasn't been voting in prior elections, does not encourage people to go cast their ballots.

When you look at the current state of the presidential race, it seems that all the attention is focused on the candidates that speak the loudest and take the most swipes at their opponents. The question that must be asked, then, is if voters turn out to vote when provided with positive messaging, why is it that negative campaigning works? Your thoughts?