Our television screens increasingly resemble a war zone, with deep-pocketed super PAC donors carpet-bombing American voters with ruthless ads. Such super PAC spending has so far captured more than $530 million this election cycle. But what will make a bigger difference on Election Day - all this super PAC spending or traditional neighbor-to-neighbor field campaigns?
According to political consultants and the mainstream media, this year's unprecedented deluge of TV ads, mailers, and robocalls puts elections from the presidency to state ballot initiatives in the hands of a few ultra-wealthy individuals. This is a convenient belief for the DC political consultants who rake in hefty profits from these tactics - but simply because it is fashionable (and lucrative) to believe that such methods decide elections does not make it true.
For those who care to know the real effect of their efforts, cutting-edge research casts doubt on the paramount importance of the tactics now considered sacrosanct among DC insiders. Over the last decade, academics have conducted hundreds of randomized experiments that have allowed researchers to measure what tactics actually get people to the polls and change their minds.
In these randomized experiments - just like the randomized drug trials that form the basis for modern medicine - some voters are randomly assigned to receive certain 'treatments' - like get out the vote mailers or TV ads - while others are left as untreated 'controls'. By comparing the behavior of people randomly assigned to receive certain tactics with those who are not, this research allows us to evaluate the effects political tactics have with the same gold standard of evidence that we entrust with our lives every time we take a prescription drug.
The results of these objective, scientific trials should leave us considerably more optimistic about the future of American democracy - and should leave most super PAC donors looking for better ways to spend their money.
First, ample research shows that even heavy barrages of TV ads leave fleeting impressions on voters. Like most of us, undecided voters do not remember what they had for breakfast last week - and randomized trials show that televised slanders against their political leaders typically leave impressions that are just as short-lived. Moreover, while vicious attack ads may make for enjoyable watching among political junkies, they do not successfully move average Americans to the polls.
And what about the glossy mailers and robotic phone calls that form the grist of the supposedly sophisticated modern campaign? Research likewise shows that such tactics barely budge people's views or behavior at all.
So what will get Americans out to vote this November? Experiments consistently show that campaign tactics work to the extent that they are personal. When researchers randomly assign some voters to receive a knock on the door from their neighbors, they typically see increases in voter turnout that approach the double digits.
Not only does personal contact have immediate payoffs that far outstrip what TV ads are capable of, it also has lasting impacts. Experimental trials show us that personal contact gets Americans into the habit of voting: a voter who is mobilized to vote by an in-person conversation in one election is twice as likely to vote in the next one, too. A meaningful conversation on a doorstep packs a punch that no super PAC billionaire's ad buy or mail drop can hope to match.
Those hoping to effect social and political change in America thus have a choice. They can help line the pockets of political consultants as they squander millions of dollars in oversaturated TV markets - or, they can have a lasting impact on the political fabric of their communities by mounting a people-powered ground game at a fraction of the cost.
CREDO SuperPAC is one of the few organizations to have chosen the latter approach in this election. And as a result, we don't look like your typical super PAC - CREDO doesn't derive influence from owning casinos or Wall Street banks but from the thousands of volunteers and organizers we have knocking on doors in their own neighborhoods because they care about their communities' futures.
To the prognosticators who foretell a new era in campaigns, relying on shoe leather to effect social change might seem antiquated. But the numbers tell a different story - that it is the Americans who engage their friends and neighbors who are making the difference in this election while the ads play in the background.
To Americans wondering if they can still make a difference by engaging their neighbors on the issues important to their communities, the data tells us that the answer is emphatically yes. Meanwhile, campaigns and donors should shift their investments from TV ads to helping volunteers organize voters in their own communities.