Commentary

Voter Contact To The Max: 'The Right Stuff' Or 'Toy Story'?

In romance, there is such a thing as being blind to rejection signals. What about in politics?

On the Internet, the proximate incentives of voter contact work in favor of never giving up on a prospect. Marginal costs for additional messages are minuscule. Lack of response, a possible signal of voter rejection, can be readily and optimistically misinterpreted as inattentiveness  — because we do indeed forget emails and overlook ads. 

So it’s worth asking whether an “upper bound” exists on contacting voters during election campaigns in the digital era. Can targets receive so many emails, web ads, social media pokes, and other forms of solicitation from campaigns that they disengage, stop contributing, and perhaps even decide not to vote for a candidate they have been supporting? How can a political marketer tell when disengagement looms, and what are the best counteractive steps?

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This upper-bound question was prompted by the epically low turnout rate in the 2014 elections, which occurred despite peaks in big spending, big data, and anecdotal expressions of annoyance at what seemed an incessant stream of messages from the campaigns. I was able to insert a few questions about voter reactions to campaign contacts into the George Washington University Battleground Poll conducted in early December and then share the results with a quartet of digital politics specialists at the Microsoft Innovation and Policy Center in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 15. 

More than three-quarters of the registered voters surveyed (77%) reported being personally contacted by a political campaign, party, or organization. Mass contact channels dominated: 92% said they were contacted by direct mail and 83% by phone call. A quarter (24%) said they were visited at their home by a canvasser, the most effective but also the most costly method. Online contact rates fell in between mass and best: 48% said they received campaign messages via email, and 32% via social media.

Asked whether they were contacted too many times, about the right amount, or too few times, 51% of registered voters said “too many.” Strong Democrats and Republicans were less bothered than leaners and Independents. In states with competitive elections (where contacts would be higher), Colorado (93%), Arkansas (80%), and Iowa (77%) residents reported the highest levels of dissatisfaction with campaign contacts. In Kentucky (46%) and Connecticut (40%), by contrast, there was less dissatisfaction. 

The panelists at the Microsoft session were Tim Cameron, chief digital strategist, National Republican Senate Committee; Paul Dunn, 2014 national field director, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee; Alex Kellner, director, Bully Pulpit Interactive; and Matt Ockzowski, digital director, Friends of Scott Walker. To a man, they contended that no upper-bound on campaign contact exists in the minds of voters. No surprise there; it’s their livelihood.

Yet their main points struck me as strong, if somewhat aspirational to date: 1) When citizens are growing weary with messages, data analytics can detect it and campaigns can adjust the dosages. 2) Low voter turnout in 2014 was not caused by super-saturation; rather, it resulted from the absence of competitive statewide elections in high-population states such as California, New York, and Texas, and a national attitude of discontent with politics and government. And 3), echoing consultants from mass media, the panelists argued that even when voters tell poll takers in December they were over-contacted, campaign messages still came through effectively before November, and the respondents didn’t leave the fold.

As one panelist put it, the idea of an upper bound is a challenge to break through, like Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier as romanticized in the film “The Right Stuff.” The movie hero that came to my mind was Buzz Lightyear, with his exuberant cry to go to “infinity and beyond.” Just because you can and want to hit voters again and again doesn’t necessarily mean you should. The difference between genuine and cartoonish accomplishments in campaign-citizen engagement may lie in the details: the consulting contracts, message narratives, and above all, the political outcomes of the fusillades, not just in elections but advocacy and governance as well. 

Like my panelists, I am bent on further exploration. If you played a part in political marketing and management in 2014, I invite you to take an online survey on where we’re going with our big data powers. Write me below or at corn@gwu.edu and request the Shenkman Survey in the subject header.

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