The Science Behind MoveOn's "Nonvoter" campaign

MoveOn's latest user-driven campaign borrows its activating theme from academic research of voter mobilization methods that has received less attention than it deserves. MoveOn's groundbreaking "Make Sure All Your Friends Vote" viral video tool uses social peer pressure to encourage friends to vote. A study of a controlled experiment, published in the February 2008 issue of American Political Science Review, found social pressure to be the single most effective way of increasing voter turnout by mass communication.

If you haven't already had one of these customized MoveOn videos forwarded to you, you can see one here, created by Ben Smith. Basically, you submit a friend's name to a simple web-based tool - and MoveOn plugs that name into a fake news report about the effect your friend's failure to vote had on this November's election. The video is sent by email to your friendSince MoveOn supports Barack Obama, the effect of course is that Obama lost because your friend stayed home.

Seems smart, right? This paper by Alan Gerber, Don Green and Christopher Larimer explains why this clever gimmick should work. Gerber et al. set up an experiment in an August 2006 primary in Michigan:

Prior to the August 2006 primary election in Michigan, approximately 80,000 households were sent one of four mailings encouraging them to vote.... One experimental group received a mailing that merely reminded them that voting is a civic duty; in a second group, they were told that researchers would be studying their turnout based on public records; a third treatment group received mailings displaying the record of turnout among those in the household; a fourth mailing revealed both the household’s voter turnout and their neighbors’ turnout. The latter two treatments suggested that a follow-up mailing after the election would report to the household or the neighborhood the subject’s turnout in the upcoming election.

...

Exposing a person’s voting record to his or her neighbors turns out to be an order of magnitude
more effective than conventional pieces of partisan or onpartisan direct mail. In fact, the turnout effect associated with this mailing is as strong as the effect of direct contact by door-to-door canvassers and by far the most cost-effective voter mobilization tactic studied to date. [emphasis added; citations omitted]

MoveOn is doing what these political scientists did - invoking the threat of public shame to expose an individual's non-voting. Of course, Eli & Co. are doing it in tongue-in-cheek style, doing it electronically (potentially lowering the cost), and -- importantly -- combining the message with the proven method of leveraging their members' own social networks.

That last innovation is what takes the MoveOn gimmick a step beyond what the political scientists did in Michigan. The experimental mailings -- although couched in "civic duty" language -- were addressed from "Practical Political Consulting." MoveOn's email comes from someone within the recipient/subject's social network (like the "Dear Neighbors"/"Friends and Neighbors" mailings that are a staple of well-run grassroots campaigns).

MoveOn's effort gets around some of the obvious concerns with applying the Gerber/Green/Larimer learning in a real-world environment. When I've considered with colleagues how one could use the social-pressure/shame themes to influence competitive elections, the worries have been that the "'shame" message (1) seems heavy-handed and (2) could damage the reputation of the sender by violating the quasi-privacy of the recipient's voting record. MoveOn is getting around these concerns by using humor and relying on individuals to lend their social capital to the effort.

The limitations of the "Make Sure All Your Friends Vote" efforts are twofold:

  • Scale: by relying on individuals to take action, the number of voters they can influence is naturally limited.
  • No public exposure: The most effective of the experimental maiings was the one which convincingly suggested to individual voters (a better word might be "threatened") that their voting behavior -- voting or staying home -- would be mailed to their neighbors after the election. The MoveOn effort trades convincing threat for humor.

Nonetheless, the MoveOn gang deserves significant kudos for their innovative work. And they have returned the favor of inspiration to Gerber/Green/Larimer by providing fruit for further research.