The COVID-19 pandemic has made campaigns restructure. There has been a movement away from the traditional campaigning of holding rallies and knocking on doors towards an entirely virtual campaign space. This involves an increased focus on phone banking and other ways of socially distant voter contact. The question still remains: does it actually work?
The 2008 Campaign
The campaign world is laced with the mythos of the 2008 Obama campaign. Many organizers and upper staff from that race are across the country running and consulting on campaigns. Many have been influenced by the experiences of that election. One of the main things that the Obama campaign focused on was relational organizing and canvassing. This led to, among other things, the surprising victory for Obama in Indiana. The lessons that were learned in that election have permeated through campaign life. They are treated as standard even though 2008 was a landslide and there are many confounding variables for why Democrats did so well in that race. Recently, there have been numerous studies that have been done on the effectiveness of field staff. These studies have produced conflicting views on the effectiveness of campaigning.
The Yale Institution for Social and Policy Studies collected studies throughout the 2000s and analyzed the results. Yale then summarized the effectiveness and it led to some results that you could easily expect. A notable result is that mass emails have not ever been proven to be effective. This is entirely predictable. How many of you actually read the campaign spam that comes into your inbox? This is why the mas email has moved to the realm of finance, where they will put fundraising links into emails. This leads to small upticks in fundraising and is part of the reason Democrats have raised more money in the last two cycles.
There was also a study that showed that relational organizing works. This is another thing that is expectable. It is much easier to convince someone that you know to vote for a candidate than it is to convince a complete stranger. They also found that “ there is contagion in voter contact” this means that if you contact someone in a person’s social network you have also contacted that person second handily as people who have had members of their friend group contacted turnout at a higher amount.
Finally, we have a big question. does phone banking work? This is inconclusive. Yale summarized that there have been studies that show that only nonpartisan phonebanks are effective. However, there was a study by David Nickerson, Ryan Friedrichs, and David King in 2006 that shows that partisan phone banking efforts are as effective as nonpartisan phone banking efforts.
All of these studies, however, are predicated on the idea that phone banking and other forms of canvassing actually work. There was a study by Michael A. Bailey, Daniel J. Hopkins & Todd Rogers in 2016 that counters the claim that it works. Bailey, Hopkins, and Rogers claim that canvassing efforts by the Obama campaign in Wisconsin during the 2008 election had the unexpected effect of reducing candidate support. This flies in the face of most of the research that has been done in the field. However, their research is convincing if you think about the average voter and dig deeper into how campaigns are run.
How Effective is Organizing?
Let’s go back to an earlier study that shows that relational organizing works. That is true – everyone agrees that it works. However, how effective would you be calling outside of your neighborhood, or district, or state? It is easy to think that your effectiveness diminishes quickly. For example, I am an organizer that is currently working in Minnesota this cycle. I have a central Virginia piedmont accent mixed with a Maryland estuary accent. I do not sound like the average Minnesota voter and I also have a Maryland phone number. That means it is easy to single myself out as not one of them. It probably does affect my ability to increase turnout on the margin. Now, imagine further outstate efforts and out district efforts. I believe that it validates both studies.
Campaign Workers Skew Left
Bailey, Hopkins, and Rogers also provide a mechanism for why phone banking and canvassing might hurt your campaign. This is because the people that sign up to volunteer and the people that they hire as campaign staff do not look like the persuadable universe of voters. By self-reporting metrics, the voting populace looks like a standard bell curve. Out of undecided voters, most are self-described moderates with a handful of somewhat conservative and somewhat liberal voters. Among Democratic voters, most are somewhat liberal or moderate.
However when you look at the people that work on campaigns, the vast majority are somewhat liberal or very liberal, and there are barely any moderates. This is something that I can verify; when I was working in Virginia during the 2019 cycle, I was the only person that was a Biden voter. There is a big disconnect between people who volunteer and work with campaigns. The universe of persuadable voters is much more moderate and has generally different views on many issues that drive the more liberal portions of the party to the polls.
Most of the literature is inconclusive. It shows that canvassing, phone banking, and other forms of campaigning work when they are personal and relational, but that benefit diminishes quickly as you go further out of your network. There is also data that shows that campaigning hurts your side because of the fundamental disconnect between volunteers, campaign staff, and the realm of persuadable undecided voters.