Campaigning Doesn’t Work?

Here is another post with insights from a CHQ team member centered around a study that was released last September. The authors of the study used evidence from field experiments to highlight campaign contact in elections. CHQ Campaign Director, Walter Haynie, delivers some great takeaways in his blog post.

I hope you’ll keep reading.

Nicole Schlinger, President of Campaign Headquarters


A lot of buzz has been generated by the recent study on the persuasive effects of campaign contact, authored by UC Berkeley political scientist, Joshua Kalla and Stanford professor David Broockman. If you haven’t seen it, here is the full 166 page study including data on 49 field experiments. Below is a more lunch-time digestible summary.

The media went nuts on this one, with headlines like, “The End of Political Campaigns As We Know Them?” and “Traditional Campaign Tactics Are Basically A Waste Of Time.”  Not surprisingly, the headlines ignore large swaths of the authors’ findings: voter contact works to persuade voters, but only when it’s done right.  

Broockman and Kalla argue that primaries and ballot measures are where persuasion tactics work best.


“We find campaigns are able to have meaningful persuasive effects in primary and ballot measure campaigns, when partisan cues are not present … We see clear significant effects in both these election types.”

The reason, they suggest, is that it is difficult to persuade someone to vote against party cues. Big surprise there. It is therefore relatively much easier to persuade voters toward your candidate or ballot measure when party cues are not present.

Despite the headlines, the study does not assume that voter contact efforts don’t matter in general elections, only that persuasive efforts in general elections do not measurably convince voters to step across party lines. The authors suggest the more significant impacts of campaigns during general elections are to:


“reinforce the political orientations of voters, and mobilize them to vote rather than convert large segments of the population to new ways of thinking… Campaigns clearly can influence whether voters bother to vote at all. Indeed, another implication of our results is that campaigns may underinvest in voter turnout efforts.” 

So what’s my take-away?

  1. Campaigns will get their best “bang for their buck” by focusing persuasive voter contact spending during races lacking party cues, namely ballot initiatives and primary elections.
  2. Once general election races have started, voter contact dollars are probably best spent on GOTV efforts rather than persuasive ones- mobilize the friends you already have, and get them to the voting booth!
  3. If your campaign relies on persuading voters to reconsider their position, you had better identify persuadable voters early on if you want voter contact efforts to be effective.

Do you agree or disagree with Broockman and Kalla? Is this useful academic research, or left-wing nonsense?

Walter Haynie

Campaign Headquarters, Campaign Director

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