How Behavioral Science is Remaking Politics

While the Republican Party uses grade school techniques for bullying conservatives and libertarians into voting for them, the Democratic Party has more sophisticated, scientific ways of trying to manipulate liberals and progressives. From the New York Times:

Hal Malchow. Source: mshcpartners.com

Hal Malchow. Source: mshcpartners.com

Over the past few days, thousands of Democratic-leaning voters nationwide — including the young people, minorities and unmarried women who were a crucial part of Barack Obama’s 2008 coalition and whom the party is desperate to rouse again on Tuesday — received a message in their mailboxes that effectively said: we’re keeping an eye on you.

The mailers are the handiwork of Hal Malchow, a political consultant who is acting on a theory that first intrigued him four years ago. Before the 2006 Michigan gubernatorial primary, three political scientists isolated a group of voters and mailed them copies of their voting histories, listing the elections in which they participated and those they missed. Included were their neighbors’ voting histories, too, along with a warning: after the polls closed, everyone would get an updated set.

After the primary, the academics examined the voter rolls and were startled by the potency of peer pressure as a motivational tool. The mailer was 10 times better at turning nonvoters into voters than the typical piece of pre-election mail whose effectiveness has ever been measured. Malchow, a 58-year-old former Mississippi securities lawyer who managed Al Gore’s first Senate campaign and went on to start a direct-mail firm, read the academics’ study and wanted to put the device to work. But he had trouble persuading his firm’s clients — which over the years have included the Democratic National Committee and the A.F.L.-C.I.O. — to incorporate such a tactic into their get-out-the-vote programs. All feared a backlash from citizens who might regard the mailer as a threat from someone seeking their vote.

Then, as New Jersey prepared to elect its governor last fall, Malchow experimented with less ominous language, an idea he adopted from the Fordham political scientist Costas Panagopoulos. He removed all mention of neighbors and offered instead an expression of gratitude for having voted in the past — while still making it clear that recipients’ voting habits would continue to be monitored. “We hope to be able to thank you in the future for being the kind of citizen who makes our democracy work,” read the letter to more than 11,000 New Jerseyites.

Malchow found that the softer tone, while less effective than the original mailer,increased turnout among recipients by 2.5 percentage points. The D.N.C. ran a similar experiment during the special election in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District this spring, with a letter from Senator Bob Casey telling voters that “our records indicate that you voted in the 2008 election” and thanking them for their “good citizenship.” By employing the device on a larger scale, for dozens of candidates and independent groups this fall, Malchow aims to deliver votes that would otherwise be lost to Democrats.

An increasingly influential cadre of Democratic strategists is finding new ideas in the same place Malchow did: behavioral-science experiments that treat campaigns as their laboratories and voters as unwitting guinea pigs. The growing use of experimental methods — Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote, calls them “prescription drug trials for democracy” — is convulsing a profession where hunches and instinct have long ruled. Already, experimental findings have upended a lot of folk wisdom about how votes are won. The most effective direct mail might not be the most eye-catching in the mailbox but the least conspicuous. It is better to have an anonymous, chatty volunteer remind voters it’s Election Day than a recorded message from Bill Clinton or Jay-Z. The most winnable voters may be soft supporters of the opposition, not the voters who polls say are undecided. (“Undecided” may just be another word for “unlikely to vote.”)

Read more here.

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