In 2008, just a few days before the Democratic presidential primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania, a large group of Pennsylvania voters got a very unusual phone call.
It was one of those get-out-the-vote reminder calls that people get every election cycle, but in addition to the bland exhortations about the importance of the election, potential voters were asked a series of carefully constructed questions:
"What do you think you'll be doing before you head to the polls on Tuesday?" recipients of the call were asked. "Where do you think you'll be coming from that day?"
These questions were designed by a Harvard professor named Todd Rogers. Rogers, among other things, is a behavioral psychologist, and he says he chose those questions for a very particular reason.
"We borrowed that from cognitive psychology," he says, "There's a lot of research showing that thinking through the actual moment when you will do something makes it more likely that the behavior will pop into your mind at the appropriate time."
Essentially, the questions plant a cognitive seed deep in your brain that sits there, mostly forgotten, until you arrive at the moment you talked about during the call. And then, says Rogers, "It pops into my head! 'Oh! I said I was going to vote now!' "
Or anyway, that was the theory of what would happen, the theory that Rogers wanted to test with the calls. And to make sure this theory worked in real life, Rogers did something that hasn't been done much in politics: a randomized controlled trial. He randomly divided the electorate in Pennsylvania into different groups: Thousands got the call with questions, thousands got a standard get-out-the-vote call without questions, and thousands got no call at all.
What he found was that the questions appeared to make a dramatic difference. People asked three simple planning questions were twice as likely to vote as people who were not.
" I was very pleasantly surprised by how effective it appeared to be," Rogers says.
Until recently, there have been very few randomized controlled trials like this in American politics. Politics has been a profession ruled by gut instinct, gurus and polls. But over the past 15 years, the primary method of scientific advance — the randomized controlled study — has been wheedling its way into politics, and bit by bit, it's challenging a lot of the conventional wisdom that dominates current political campaigns.
The Difference Between Experiments And Asking Questions
To be clear, it's not that American voters haven't been studied. All kinds of people have tried to divine the thoughts and feelings of the American voter. But until recently, the only way researchers and pols could figure to study a voter was to ask the voter questions. You either put them in a focus group or you polled them on the phone.
But according to Jennifer Green, another researcher who studies voters through experimentation, that's no way to study a voter. You have to use controlled experiments, she argues, because voters themselves often don't understand what moves them. Most of us, she says, don't.
"If I showed you a quacking duck and I said, 'Hey, do you think this would make you more likely to buy this insurance?' You would say, 'No!' You're going to say, 'I want to know how much it costs! What it will cover! All those details so I can make an informed decision.' We want to portray ourselves as people using information to make informed decisions."
But obviously, Green says, the things that move us often have nothing to do with what our conscious minds tell us is important. "The thing that makes an impression on us, changes our minds ... may be a quacking duck," she says. "And we only figure that out by testing. Asking people is not the same as testing."
Back in 1998, during midterm elections, two political scientists, Donald Green and Alan Gerber, decided to do a series of randomized experiments in Connecticut. (At the time, both were at Yale. Green now works at Columbia University.) Their idea was simple: They wanted to understand what works. Which campaign tactics actually changed minds? Was it better to use direct mail? Phone banks? Canvass door to door? Are there particular ways to talk to voters that make them more likely to vote?
What they discovered was that much of the conventional wisdom about what got voters to vote was simply wrong.
Exhibit A: Robo Calls
Campaigns spend a fortune on these calls because they think they work, and to be fair, social psychological theory suggests they should work, too. When a well-liked personality — Oprah — endorses a candidate, it should make a difference.
But when Gerber and Green did a series of experiments testing celebrity robo calls, that's not what they found.
"The robo call had no detectable effect whatsoever," says Green. "We are batting basically a perfect zero for all these robo call celebrity endorsements. Which is kind of an interesting commentary not only on the effectiveness of a campaign tactic but on a well-regarded social psychological theory."
Since those first experiments, which took place in 1998, there have been dozens more.
Scientists have discovered that when you tell potential voters that lots of people are going to the polls, the social pressure makes them more likely to go to the polls, too.
And when you indicate to people that you are watching them by mailing them records that show how often they and their neighbors have voted, that really gets them to the polls, too. "It was an enormous effect — 8 percentage points," Green says.
Though at first many campaign professionals dismissed this work, over time it's been gaining acceptance among both Democrats and Republicans.
Now, the potential impact of this work on elections shouldn't be overstated.
The reality is that elections are mostly decided by some combination of macro forces like the economy and war, and political personalities. But Rogers believes that rethinking campaigns based on this kind of research can make a difference.
"We're talking about increasing the chances of winning on the margins during close races," he says. "But there are a lot of races on the margins."
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
How much of this campaign jousting makes people come out to vote or stay home? Well, over the past decade or so, researchers have done controlled experiments on voters. And as NPR's Alix Spiegel reports, the experiments are slowly changing how political professionals think about getting out the vote.
ALIX SPIEGEL, BYLINE: In the coming months, many Americans will get a call from a political campaign, something along the lines of...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hi. I'm calling to remind you to vote on Tuesday, April 22. Do you plan to vote on Tuesday?
SPIEGEL: Calls like this have been a staple of political campaigns for decades. But back in April of 2008, a few days before the presidential primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, thousands of Pennsylvania voters got a version of this call with a twist: The potential voters were asked a series of carefully constructed questions.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: About what time do you expect you'll head to the polls on Tuesday? What do you think you'll be doing before you head to the polls that day? And where do you expect you'll be coming from when you head to the polls?
SPIEGEL: These questions were designed by Harvard professor Todd Rogers. Among other things, Rogers is a behavioral psychologist, and he chose those questions for a reason.
TODD ROGERS: We borrowed that from cognitive psychology, thinking through the actual moment when you will do something. Thinking through that actually makes it more likely that the behavior will pop into your mind at the appropriate time.
SPIEGEL: And actually get you to, for example, go out and vote. Now, to make sure this really worked in real life, Rogers did something that hasn't been done much in politics: He did a randomized controlled study. That is, he randomly divided the state of Pennsylvania into different groups: Thousands got the call I just explained, thousands got a standard get-out-the-vote call without the questions, and thousands got no call at all. And what Rogers found was that those questions, they really did work.
ROGERS: Just asking those three simple planning questions doubled the impact of the calls.
SPIEGEL: People who were asked the questions were twice as likely to vote as people who were not.
ROGERS: I was very pleasantly surprised by how effective it appeared to be.
SPIEGEL: In 2008, when Rogers did that research, he was working for a newly established organization called the Analyst Institute. The Analyst Institute is a private group of researchers that works only for Democratic campaigns. The Obama campaign is a client. And the president of the institute, Jennifer Green, told me that traditionally, when people wanted to understand what a voter thought, they way they did it was to ask the voter questions. You either put them in a focus group or you polled them on the phone.
And for Jennifer Green, that's no way to understand a voter. You have to do controlled experiments, she says, because voters themselves, they often don't know what moves them. Most of us, she says, don't.
JENNIFER GREEN: If I showed you a quacking duck, and I said: Hey, do you think this would make you more likely to buy this insurance? You would say no. We want to portray ourselves as people using information to make informed decisions. We want to justify our beliefs. And the way that we actually interact in the world is not like that. The things that make an impression on us or change our minds, may be a particular image, it may be a quacking duck. And we only figure that out by testing. Asking people is not the same as testing.
SPIEGEL: Now, Green couldn't talk very specifically about the experiments that the Analyst Institute has done. It's proprietary research paid for by their clients. So to find out more about what randomized controlled experiments have to tell us about what gets voters to vote, I went to Columbia University and talked to this guy.
DONALD GREEN: I'm Donald Green or Don Green. I'm professor of political science here at Columbia University.
SPIEGEL: Don Green and his collaborator, Alan Gerber, were actually the people who got all this experimentation in politics started in the first place. About 14 years ago, during the midterm elections, they decided to do a series of randomized experiments in Connecticut which sought to answer the following questions:
GREEN: What works to produce votes? What kinds of campaign tactics, what kinds of campaign messages, what kinds of campaign messengers cause people to get up and cast votes on Election Day or change their minds about candidates?
SPIEGEL: And what they discovered from this kind of experimentation was that a lot of the conventional wisdom that dominates current political campaigns, it's just wrong. Exhibit A is robocalls by celebrities. Campaigns spend a fortune on these calls because they think that they work. And to be fair, social psychological theory suggest that they should work too.
When a well-liked person, say, Oprah, endorses a candidate, it should make a difference. But when Gerber and Green did a series of randomized experiments testing the celebrity robocalls, that's not what they found.
GREEN: The robocall had no detectable effect whatsoever. We're batting, basically, a perfect zero for all these robocall celebrity endorsements.
SPIEGEL: Since those first experiments in 1998, there have been dozens more. It's been discovered that when you tell potential voters that lots of people are going to the polls, the social pressure makes them more likely to go the polls too. It's been discovered that when you indicate to people that you are watching them by mailing them records that show how often they and their neighbors have voted, that really gets them to the polls.
GREEN: It was about eight percentage points. It was a - it was an enormous effect.
SPIEGEL: And though at first campaign professionals mostly dismissed this work, over time it's been slowly gaining acceptance among both Democrats and Republicans. And Todd Rogers, the Harvard professor who's now on the board of the Analyst Institute, says these insights have already made a difference in many of the campaigns the institute works for.
ROGERS: I think we've doubled or tripled the impact per dollar spent. Just in the last five or six years, we've made a ton of progress on how to use psychology in helping people vote.
SPIEGEL: Now, the potential impact of this work needs to be put in the proper perspective. The reality is elections are mostly decided by some combination of macro forces, like the economy and war, and, you know, political personalities. But as Rogers points out, a good get-out-the-vote ground game, it can make a difference.
ROGERS: We're talking about increasing the chances of win on the margin during close races and there are a lot of races that are on the margins.
SPIEGEL: The coming contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney might actually be one of those races.
Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.