Political campaign outreach ineffective in general elections, UC Berkeley study finds

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Outreach activity has no effect on general election voters, according to a study published by UC Berkeley and Stanford University researchers Wednesday in the American Political Science Review.

Joshua Kalla, a UC Berkeley doctoral candidate in political science, co-wrote the study with David Broockman, an assistant professor of political economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Kalla and Broockman drew evidence from 40 existing studies of the same subject, as well as nine of their own original experiments conducted during the 2015 primary elections and 2016 general election.

The study found that personal contact between political campaigns and voters — including phone calls and door-to-door canvassing — does not alter the outcomes of general elections if conducted during the two months leading up to the election. Outreach activity conducted earlier can influence voters’ opinions, although only temporarily, the study concluded.

Kalla was unavailable to comment.

To conduct their original field experiments, Kalla and Broockman partnered with Working America, the political organizing branch of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, as reported by Vox. These additional experiments significantly increased the amount of statistical evidence about the effectiveness of personal contact in general elections, according to the study.

Kalla and Broockman published another study in April 2016 that found door-to-door canvassing to be an effective means of decreasing prejudice against transgender people. They determined that just one 10-minute conversation could significantly reduce transphobia.

Although the two studies arrive at different conclusions regarding the outcomes of persuasive tactics, campus political science professor Eric Schickler, a member of Kalla’s dissertation committee, said they do not contradict one another.

“What the work as a whole is suggesting is that we need to distinguish between different kinds of situations,” Schickler said. “Persuasion can work in certain contexts.”

Campus associate professor of political science Gabriel Lenz, who is also a member of Kalla’s dissertation committee, said, however, that there is “some tension” between the conclusions of the 2017 outreach activity study and the 2016 transphobia study.

But Lenz cited changing public opinion and a lack of familiarity with the transgender issue as possible explanations for the effectiveness of door-to-door persuasion found in the 2016 study. Lenz added that political polarization is most likely a reason for the ineffectiveness of personal contact methods in general elections.

The study’s results do not mean that political campaigns serve no purpose, according to campus political science professor Sean Gailmard. Rather, he said it highlights areas in which campaigns can be effective, including mobilizing individuals to vote.

“(The study) is a major contribution to both political science research and what we can offer to political campaigns about how (they should be best) conducted,” Gailmard said.

Contact Danielle Kaye at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @danielledkaye.