THE BLOG

A Shift in Focus, a Push to the Polls

11/05/2013 09:35 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Today is Election Day and, needless to say, there are plenty of important races waiting to be decided. Assuming recent polls are correct, Bill de Blasio will be New York City's first Democratic mayor in 20 years and his focus on the most disadvantaged potions of our population will represent a shift in tone from previous administrations. In the city council races, there are plenty of fresh faces from all five boroughs waiting to make the voices of their communities heard. With a new mayor and city council, this election is set to usher in a new era of New York City politics. Unfortunately, despite the historical implications of the upcoming election, voter turnout today is still likely to be just as low as it usually is. That is, delicately hovering right above ground level.

Over a decade ago, the world of politics saw another new and revolutionary era ushered in, this time in electioneering and campaigns. Voter turnout in presidential elections had been steadily plunging since the 1960's and only saw a slight upturn in the late 1990's, and has been on average slowly increasing since. This upturn also happened to coincide with a brand new approach to get out the vote, or GOTV, efforts. Sasha Issenberg's 2010 New York Times article, "Nudge the Vote," laid out a brief summary of this very important, but often overlooked, period of time.

To summarize Issenberg, in 1998, Alan Gerber and Donald Green devised an experiment to see what campaign tools are the best at actually getting voters to the polls. According to their results, it turned out that most campaigns had been wasting their donors' precious dollars on ineffective techniques. Popular tools like direct mail and scripted phone calls did little to nothing to convince voters to show up to the polls come Election Day, while door-to-door canvassing proved to be by far the most effective technique.

The publication of this work in 2000 set off a firestorm within the political world, and a windfall of new data flooded the industry (much of which confirmed Gerber and Green's earlier findings). As experimental data continually debunked conventional political wisdom, savvy campaigns quickly caught on and adopted new techniques that were proven to work, while eschewing those that didn't -- with much success to show for it. We have seen this demonstrated this year in the de Blasio campaign, which did not send out a single piece of direct mail in the weeks leading up to the Primary. As a result, he was able to spend $200,000 more than his opponents on television ads, which have been proven much more effective at turning out voters.

More important than any one finding of any single study, though, was the shift in the way political strategists approached campaigns. What had been an industry that was driven by conventional, and often outdated, wisdom, became one that was fundamentally scientific. Techniques like randomized control experiments and field studies, which were first developed in the hard sciences and then migrated into the social sciences, are now commonplace in the world of political consultancy. As a result, campaign donations are now used much more effectively than they had been and, as we have seen over the last decade, voter turnout in federal elections, at least, has once again turned upwards.

To be clear, not everyone has jumped on this bandwagon and many stubborn campaigns, particularly local ones that simply do not have the resources, time or money to conduct full-fledged experiments, continue to rely on antiquated campaign tactics. As a result, turnout in less prestigious elections remain extremely low. Mayoral elections in particular continue to suffer from depressingly low turnout. According to The Atlantic, for nearly the past two decades, turnout in mayoral elections across the country averages at a mere 25.8 percent. While some of this can be attributed to off year elections and the inherent lack of publicity compared to presidential elections, I feel safe in saying that a lot of it also has to do with poor GOTV efforts.

This is not for a lack of trying -- just ask any registered voter in New York City what their mailbox has looked like over the past two weeks or how many phone calls they receive on any given day from all too eager campaign volunteers. However, campaigns need to expand their focus, by not just adopting more effective techniques, but also beginning their GOTV effort earlier so that they can reach voters who would not be able to vote on Election Day (because of illness, a disability, job-related obligations etc.) regardless of whatever tactic was thrown their way. By encouraging such voters to vote early or explaining to them how they can vote absentee, campaigns can broaden the voter base beyond those that are physically able to vote on the day of the election.

The point is (and what Gerber and Green and a legion political data wonks have taught us) getting voters to the polls is a much more difficult problem to solve than just slipping a mailer under their door on November 4th. It is a problem that has a much more nuanced, holistic, but now tractable, solution.

All this is to say that despite the incredible hype that has surrounded this election, don't expect voter turnout to differ all that much from what it usually is, and changing that will require a systemic and fundamental shift in the very roots of campaign strategizing. In the meantime, however, this fact does not exempt voters from going to the polls today. In fact, it should provide extra motivation for people to vote, because with such low expected turnout, every vote really does count.