Traditional Campaign Tactics Are Basically A Waste Of Time, New Study Concludes

Campaigns need to get more creative if they want to persuade voters.

If you’ve ever wondered whether all those mailers, robocalls and in-person visits you get in the run-up to a big election really do anything but annoy people, the answer is... they probably don’t. 

A new study finds that the effect of campaign contact on voters’ choice of candidate during a general election is basically zero. 

David Broockman of Stanford University and Joshua Kalla of the University of California, Berkeley, looked at the results of 49 field experiments that took place in real-world political campaigns. Their conclusion, published in the American Political Science Review, is that in a big election between a Democrat and a Republican ― such as the 2016 campaign, where each party spent billions to persuade voters to back their respective candidate ― traditional campaign tactics just don’t work. 

There is less evidence about the effectiveness of online and TV advertising, the authors note, but their best guess is that it’s also zero. 

This doesn’t mean campaigns are useless. Broockman and Kalla write that candidates can still “determine the content of voters’ choices by changing their positions, strategically revealing certain information, and affecting media narratives ― dynamics which are outside the scope of our analysis but could be affected by advertising.” 

“Our argument is not that campaigns do not influence general elections in any way,” they write, “but that the direct persuasive effects of their voter contact and advertising in general elections are essentially zero.”

Broockman and Kalla also note that if campaigns invest time and energy into identifying pockets of persuadable voters, they can have a bigger impact. The challenge, however, is finding those people. 

And voters in other types of elections ― like during primaries and ballot-measure fights ― are more persuadable, because partisan cues aren’t present.

From the study:

Broockman and Kalla also examine the theory that ads and other types of engagement are ineffective because both sides do it ― that such efforts, in other words, cancel each other out. They conclude that rather than having a cancellation effect, these efforts just don’t have any effect at all. 

“This finding may help explain why campaigns increasingly focus on rousing the enthusiasm of existing supporters instead of reaching across party lines to win over new supporters,” they note. “Our findings also offer an important caveat to the widespread notion that political elites can easily manipulate citizens’ political choices. The circumstances in which citizens’ political choices appear manipulable appear to be exceedingly rare in the elections that matter most.”

Broockman told HuffPost that while campaigns don’t seem to be hurting their own cause, on average, they need to think outside the box if they want to get more of a boost. 

“It’s probably not like, there’s this one weird trick or one tweak they need,” he said. “There seems like there has to be a lot more creativity and willingness to try new things than I would say you typically see in campaigns.”

Broockman and Kalla have focused on field experiments. In 2014, they worked with the grassroots progressive group CREDO Action and found that lawmakers were far more likely to meet with campaign donors than constituents. 

More recently, they did a widely publicized study that found large and lasting persuasive effects of door-to-door canvassing conversations about LGBTQ rights. 

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