WASHINGTON – Media saturation through television, radio and Internet ads has been indispensable as a campaign tool. But new research shows that while media are helpful, it is grassroots activities such as knocking on doors and talking with voters that drive Americans to the polls.
"Score one for old-fashioned politics," said Donald Green, a Yale University professor and co-author of the new book "Get Out The Vote! How to Increase Voter Turnout."
For years, politicians have been focusing on the next big thing, from radio in the 1940s and television in the 1960s to direct mail in the 1980s and "robo-telephone" calls in the 1990s. Some election watchers are calling 2004 the year of the Internet. But not all campaign experts agree.
After extensive research spanning the 1998 to 2002 elections, Green and co-author Alan Gerber found that door-to-door canvassing is a much better tactic of getting-out-the-vote than Internet messaging. Their study shows that knocking on doors drove voter turnout up by 8 to 10 percent, while leaflets, direct mail and e-mail yielded increases of less than 1 percent.
"To mobilize voters, you must make them feel wanted at the polls. Mobilizing voters is rather like inviting them to a social occasion. Personal invitations convey the most warmth and work the best," Green and Gerber write.
"Maybe there is nothing wrong with the voters," said University of Maryland professor James Gimpel. "They simply need to be asked, and asked in the right way."
The research comes at a time when voter turnout rates continue to drop and strategists of both parties are in search of ways to get their supporters to the polls.
Green and Gerber found that dollars went further when devoted to precinct walking rather than mass media. Because mass media is so expensive, $1 million would quickly be exhausted, sometimes with an indiscernible effect. But the same sum could hire an army of canvassers, who, if well-trained, could inspire a fair number of voters.
Robo-telephone calls with the voices of celebrities or national politicians also have little significant effect, Green and Gerber found. But when calls are made by well-trained and supervised individuals, they can boost voter turnout because there is quality person-to-person contact.
Sometimes a new message is what voters need, said Anna Greenberg, vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (search), who recently told an audience at the Brookings Institution that voters are deeply cynical about politics and don't believe it has any impact on their lives.
Third party and insurgent candidacies such as the 1992 presidential run by Ross Perot, the 1998 Minnesota gubernatorial campaign of Jesse Ventura, and John McCain's quest in 2000 for the Republican nomination all caused spikes in voter turnout, she noted.
Voter turnout varies significantly across demographic and regional groups. Turnout rates go up among those who are married, are married with children (except for those with children under the age of two) and homeowners. Young people also vote at much lower rates than the middle-aged and elderly.
The common theme is that as individuals become more tied to their communities, they tend to vote more, said Ed Goeas, president and CEO of The Tarrance Group (search), a Republican survey research and strategy team.
"Canvassing provides that connection with the community and that is part of why it has an impact," Goeas said.
Historically, low voter turnout has been thought of as primarily a problem for Democrats, but Republicans also need to be concerned about low turnout in the South as well as in heavily Republican communities with many young people, Gimpel said. Additionally, Republican areas such as the South have the highest concentration of 18- to 29-year-olds who vote at the lowest rates, he said.
Applying the study's finding to national and statewide races will be a challenge, Goeas said.
"We've known for years that personal contact is the best way to do it. The problem is it is very hard to do it, particularly in the larger campaigns," he said.
But personal contact has taken new form on the Internet. Initially having few resources, Howard Dean's (search) presidential campaign used the Web to organize, rally voters and identify people willing to act as canvassers. In this way, it managed to minimize the cost of running a national campaign while following the principle that high-quality individual contact is important, said Zephyr Teachout, senior Internet adviser for the Dean campaign.
"We had the opportunity with the Internet to identify tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of new canvassers," Teachout said.
She cited the example of the Dean campaign's Texas organization, where without the Internet it would have had to rely on word of mouth recommendations to identify precinct captains (search). But by using the Web, it posted a list of Texas precincts and quickly had 2000 volunteers willing to work 10 hours a week.
"The power of e-mail is not the political party to you, but rather, you to your neighbor. In the long run, I think it is going to change political culture by making it easier to organize," Teachout said.
Because the Dean campaign collapsed, Goeas worried that it would be written off as a failure from which nothing could be learned.
"I think there's great potential in terms of the Internet and I think it has been misspun after what happened to Howard Dean," he said. "The thing people like from the Internet is it gives people the feeling they are involved."