Campaigns go back to the future


During North Carolina’s primary elections earlier this year, did you get a visit to your home from a campaign worker?

If so, you are far from alone. One of the most noticeable changes in political campaigns during the past decade has been the return of door-to-door canvassing. It was a mainstay of electoral campaigns many decades ago, before the advent of saturation ad buys on television. It has returned.

Why have the political pros gone back to the future? Because in the highly competitive politics we’re experiencing, here in North Carolina and in other parts of the country, even small differences in campaign tactics have the potential to determine outcomes. Politicos have a huge incentive to wring as much electoral benefit as possible from every dollar they spend. And according to the latest empirical research, that doesn’t mean buying as many TV ads as they can afford.

Not that long ago, political consultants usually sneered at grassroots campaigning. They told their candidates to raise as much money as possible so they could run as many good ads as possible. TV was the only cost-effective means of reaching large number of voters, they said. If the state or national party would also spring for get-out-the-vote efforts, the consultants welcomed the help. Still, they kept their own focus on converting campaign cash into gross ratings points (the term for how much airtime you are buying for your message).

Now, it’s true that consultants often made a good amount of their income from placing TV buys for their candidates. But it would be a mistake to think their belief in advertising was a sham to cover their own self-dealing. There were good reasons to think TV ads were the best use of the marginal dollar. Perhaps they were, for a while.

What’s happened lately is that political scientists, marketing firms, and campaign consultants themselves (pressured by donors intent on getting the biggest bang for the buck) have been conducting field tests. They’ve studied the relative benefits of TV, radio, print, billboards, “free” media interviews, direct mail, phone calls, and door-to-door canvassing.

Guess what? After a certain point, raising and spending more money on TV ads doesn’t seem to help candidates very much. You certainly need your name and message out there, and to answer effective attacks by your opponents. If you plot the benefits of this strategy, however, the line goes from a rising slope to a horizontal. Once you reach that plateau, more ad spending won’t do the trick.

At the same time, the rate of return on the three “direct” methods of campaigning — sending targeted voters a piece of mail, calling them on the phone, and visiting them in their homes — has gone up. Ironically, the explanation is technological innovation. By collecting and manipulating massive amounts of data, a campaign, political party, or independent-expenditure group can target its message to precisely the people it needs either to persuade or (more often) to turn out to the polls.

A recent paper in the journal Political Science Research and Methods quantified the effects for the 2012 presidential race. The campaigns and other supporters of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney used all three tactics extensively. On average, their efforts increased turnout in targeted battleground states by seven to eight percentage points. It’s not that any single act makes a big difference. It’s about repetition.

The study’s findings were consistent with prior research indicating that, on average, a phone call boosts turnout by four-tenths of a point, a mailer by seven-tenths of a point, and a personal visit by a full point. Because targeted voters in 2012 battlegrounds received an average of about 10 phone calls, two pieces of mail, and two knocks on the door, it’s not surprising that the campaign’s total effect on voter turnout averaged just over seven percent.

What I’ve just done is provide you an elaborate explanation for what you’ll likely experience this fall. Tell the campaign worker who stops by your house that I said “hi.”

John Locke Foundation chairman John Hood is the author of Catalyst: Jim Martin and the Rise of North Carolina Republicans.

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