Articles and Analysis


McDonald: 5 Myths About Turning Out the Vote

Topics: 2006 , The 2006 Race

Professor Michael P. McDonald, a nationally renowned authority on voter turnout (and an occasional commenter on Pollster.com), had a timely op-ed piece published in today's Washington Post reviewing the academic evidence that debunks "5 Myths About Turning Out the Vote." It's well worth reading in full.

McDonald covered a topic on a lot of minds lately (mine included), the Republicans' vaunted "72-Hour Campaign:"

Republicans supposedly have a super-sophisticated last-minute get-out-the-vote effort that identifies voters who'll be pivotal in electing their candidates. Studies of a campaign's personal contact with voters through phone calls, door-to-door solicitation and the like find that it does have some positive effect on turnout. But people vote for many reasons other than meeting a campaign worker, such as the issues, the closeness of the election and the candidates' likeability. Further, these studies focus on get-out-the-vote drives in low-turnout elections, when contacts from other campaigns and outside groups are minimal. We don't know what the effects of mobilization drives are in highly competitive races in which people are bombarded by media stories, television ads and direct mail.

Also, in 2002 and 2004, the 72-Hour-Campaign also benefited from a political environment and national mood largely favorable to Republicans. Not so this time. We will soon see hether they can work the same magic in a climate like 2006. 

Again, McDonald's piece is good summary of academic findings all political junkies should know. Go read it all.


pol junkie:

Thanks for the link to McDonald's article Mark, very informative.

Dr. McDonald's last sentence is really the critical question we're all concerned about since 20-30 House races are considered competitive or tossups. Shame he didn't say if there are any studies in progress that he's aware of, testing the value of GOTV efforts in competitive races.


Gary Kilbride:

Terrific article by Dr. McDonald. His point regarding percentage of the eligible vote reminds me of the dynamic in Nevada. Progressives expect the state to turn blue via Hispanic numbers. But Hispanics are only 10.7 percent of the voters in Democratic Clark County, despite representing about 25 percent of the population. The vast majority of the others are not yet 18, or not citizens.

It really is like a horse race, isn't it? Hundreds of competing variables and 50 years past the wire everyone is scrambling for the Form and saying, "aha, it was adding the blinkers! I should have known all along."

This is what I remember from about this point in 2004:

* Security moms are a myth
* Democrats overwhelm the GOP in new registrations in swing states, worth several points
* Hidden cell phone users are young and tilt heavily toward Kerry
* Despite polls insisting parity, party ID will still be +3 or +4 toward Democrats

Democrats thrill to condemn Bush for getting everything wrong in Iraq. In terms of late cycle rationale regarding myths and meaningful, Democrats have flunked the handicap lately. Bigtime. There is no way I'm ignoring that. In recent weeks the mini delight on progressive sites is mocking Republican GOTV as overstated. It fits snugly with the 2006 theme of relying on the other side to lose, as opposed to popular issues of your own.

Everything tends to drift back to the beginning. If Republican GOTV were a newly whispered factor I would dismiss it. This has been steadily building for 5 years. I remember reading obscure articles in fall 2001, that Rove had been stunned in 2000, expecting a tidy win but turnout had flopped. Steps were immediately put into place toward 2002 and 2004, with a test drive in the handful of races in November 2001.

Here's the new variable, the one that hasn't had time to fully take hold: 50-state strategy.

Democrats need to realize the other side is not going to forfeit. A 30-year foundational strategy to build the party, then you stay home in the one cycle in which both chambers are at stake, and that has been the publicized theme for months? I don't like those odds.

Democrats will win via a restored gender gap and unusual edge among independents, but IMO a major election night story will be higher than anticipated turnout among the Republican base, particularly in the targeted races.

The Chafee/Laffey primary in Rhode Island was the one competitive Republican GOTV test this year. If you look at blog reports from the morning and afternoon of that primary, the Laffey people were supremely confident, saying they had exceeded turnout goals everywhere. Yet the party-led Chafee GOTV campaign swamped those numbers and the race wasn't even close.


"Steve Laffey's campaign aides will be stunned if they lose. Campaign sources say they hit all their target numbers in every targeted precinct etc, assuming a turnout of 50 to 55k voters.

These are just targeting predictors, not vote counts, so anything can happen, but everything has gone as planned for their turnout operation."


Thanks for the publicity, Mark.

If your readers are interested in tracking turnout, I suggest taking a look at the early voting statistics in Oregon, Texas, and Tennessee. I have found these statistics to reliably predict election turnout. From past statistics it looks like Tennessee turnout among eligible voters is on track to be in the upper 40%, Oregon in the low 40%, and Texas in the upper 30%.

I have heard second-hand that Iowa absentee ballots are showing a decisive edge to registered Democrats, but I could not find public statistics. In 2004, Democrats won Iowa's absentee vote, but lost the in-person election day vote. Politicos on the ground in Iowa attributed this to a vigorous absentee drive that was not followed up by an intense election day effort.

As for pol junkie's question: the problem with studies in competitive races is that there is much confounding noise. Those interested in the effects of mobilization would not have started their studies where they would be least likely to find an effect. I am not aware of a study either planned or underway in a competitive election, but I imagine that someone will eventually do it.


Ivan Frishberg:

I enjoyed the article but the paragraph clipped above did not seem right to me. The studies that have been done to quantify the impact of a field contact have proven to be fairly consistent regardless of the baseline turnout.

It is not the case that these studies of voter contact have only been conducted in low-turnout elections as you state. studies of phone and canvass contacts on young voters from the 2000 and 2002 elections showed basically the same results. (review the Don Green and David Nickerson studies from both cycles)

Also, we do know what the impact is of these campaigns in high turnout elections. Analysis by Ryan Friedrichs of the Young Voter Alliance ground activities in 2004 showed increases in turnout when compared to control precincts even in the most fiercely fought states and districts.

Other operations targeting unreliable voters in heavily targeted precincts also found increases in the 2004 elections that reflect the general body of research.

In the 2005 VA election, Young Democrats of America found an increase in turnout from face to face contacts in randomized field studies. Studies in the same election cycle that were done with top notch Democratic and Republican operatives by the non-partisan Young Voter Strategies found that treatment groups that recieved an intense program of mail and automated calls showed no increase in turnout.

There is plenty of data to support the fact that a good voter contact program works. They work in local elections, mid-term elections, off year state elections and presidential elections.

So while the debate about the relative effectiveness of the 72 hour project versus democratic efforts, or the debate about just how much of the 72 hour project is hype, are all interesting questions, the debate over the effectiveness of field programs in general is far more settled than you describe.

Clearly it is not the only thing going on as you say, but its impact is an additive to everything else in the campaign that is proven to be independent of other campaign factors.


pol junkie:

Thank you Dr. McDonald for the clarification. Yes I see where it would be difficult to isolate the effects of GOTV when there are so many factors at play. I hope someone tackles that research question.


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