Did the controversial mailer sent by the Ted Cruz campaign ahead of the Iowa Caucuses open the door to candidates using more aggressive social pressure tactics? Some consultants who have applied the tactic think so.
Democrats have used social pressure mailers for years to enhance GOTV efforts. But these pieces have been sent primarily by advocacy groups, or grasstops organizations that fold after Election Day. And with research demonstrating a softer approach is equally effective, the use of more aggressive messaging is rare.
On a local level, Republicans have tried the tactic. During the 2014 San Diego mayoral race, California-based Republican firm Revolvis sent mailers on behalf of Kevin Faulconer’s campaign with the voter’s name in bold letters, which read, “John Doe, public records show you failed to vote in the primary.” The mailers also featured either a former mayor or local party chairman.
“We knew that most of the studies on mail-centered turnout programs advocated a softer approach, something much more subtle,” the firm’s partners wrote in a case study for C&E. “But we decided that bold graphics and the name of the voter would attract more attention. We also figured there would be some blow back from such an aggressive approach, but in fact it was minimal.”
Revolvis said the tactic increased turnout among low-propensity Republican voters by 8.5 percent.
Now, Cruz’s “voting violation” mailer did generate blowback in the form of some negative press coverage, along with rebukes from public officials and rival campaigns. But that attention may have come, in part, because it was such a novel use of the tactic.
It was the first time that a major candidate attached his or her name to a piece that sought to pressure its recipients into voting based on past participation in comparison with their neighbors, according to Hal Malchow, a veteran Democratic mail consultant who has studied the use of social pressure.
“And I haven’t even seen any reputable non-profit organization use the neighbors strategy. I’ve seen a few cases where organizations were created to send the mail out and disappeared immediately after the election so that no one could figure out who did it, but I’ve never seen a presidential candidate, or any candidate for that matter, list someone’s neighbors.”
The use of social pressure gained wider adoption following the publication of a study conducted on primary voters in Michigan in 2006 by Yale researchers Alan S. Gerber and Donald P. Green, and University of Northern Iowa’s Christopher Larimer. Their study found that a mailer listing a household’s voting records together with the voting records of those living nearby along with the line “we intend to mail an updated chart” was the most effective and cost-efficient GOTV tactic.
The voting report-card mailer has since become hugely popular, albeit mainly with Democrats. But Malchow noted it tends to work better on voters with good voting records overall.
“Social pressure, particularly the report cards, actually has a better impact on the people who see that they are good voters and want to continue to be good voters than it does on the bad voters,” he said.
Meanwhile, social-pressure researcher Christopher Mann found that there’s almost no measurable difference in performance between mailers that use aggressive language, such as telling the voter he or she is under surveillance, together with the recipient’s voter history table, and more mellow language. Mann conducted his experiment on during a 2007 Kentucky gubernatorial election on voters with a 5-to-75 percent probability of voting.
Meanwhile, the Cruz campaign may have also made a mistake by creating erroneous voting scores and grades for the recipients. “Was the Cruz campaign accurately portraying the voter histories of Iowans? Or did it simply make up the numbers?,” Ryan Lizza asked in the New Yorker. “It seems to have made them up.”
That, according to Malchow, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
“It’s not a very difficult data problem to give someone the exact percentage,” he said. “I’m not sure why anyone would want to make it up.”
Meanwhile, Rubio’s campaign also sent a social-pressure report-card mailer, but it didn’t include the names of the recipient’s neighbors. Rubio strategist Todd Harris jabbed the Cruz campaign for its tactics. “There's a right way and a wrong way to do mail like this. We did it the right way. Cruz? Not so much,” he tweeted Jan. 31.
Jason Roe, a partner at Revolvis, said that could just be sour grapes from the Rubio camp. “Opponents didn’t like it because it was effective,” he said.
Roe also questioned whether the inaccuracy of the scores made any difference. “The impact is from the idea that people know your record, not so much that the record is accurate,” he said. “If you recognized a neighbor’s name on that list, you think, ‘oh, they do know.’ That’s an aggressive move, but I think it also gives it some authenticity.”
Of course, Iowa did see record GOP turnout during its Feb. 1 caucuses and Cruz did win the night. That may prompt other candidates to replicate his tactics.
“Smaller races have always been really gun shy about doing this kind of stuff because they know a lot of the people in the community,” said Joe Lestingi, a strategist at the Chadderdon Group, a Democratic mail firm. “For someone who’s running for local office, seeing the results, you may see them start to open up the idea and say [in a mailer], ‘This if your vote history and we need to improve it.’
“In the industry, we accepted this unwritten rule that that’s not something candidates would do. They would do the ‘thank-you for voting’ mailer, which is the second version of that tactic. Cruz just opened a whole new door.”