The most effective way of turning a non-voter into a voter—several times more effective than any other technique that’s ever been measured—is to send a citizen a copy of her vote history, the record of elections in which she cast a ballot, and her neighbors’ vote histories. Then tell her that everyone will get an updated set after the coming election. Behavioral psychologists call this “social pressure,” the idea that people adjust their behavior to conform with what they think are others’ expectations. In 2006, a few researchers ran a field experiment and found that sending such mail had a massive impact on turnout—but they also got death threats from people who accused them of blackmail.
This is an instance where the knowledge was shared, and, in fact, the study was published in a political science journal. (It’s proven to be one of the discipline’s ballsier experiments to date.) But political campaigns and parties have been wary of using it for fear of being labeled bullies by voters. Over the following years, political operatives and academics found ways to soften the language, while still exerting subtle social pressure and impacting voter turnout—and these results are likely to hit millions of mailboxes before Election Day.
I had thoughts about election analytics back in 2007, but I thought Google would be a more visible player. Here is my old post with two rather wrong predictions.
Sasha Issenberg is the author of The Sushi Economy; his next project is a book on gay marriage, titled The Engagement.