Turnout alone won’t mean a win

Last week I began discussing, some might say attacking, a meme heard with increasing frequency: Persuasion is a waste, it’s all about turnout. The latest entrant in this vein was a New Republic piece last week that confidently, but inaccurately, asserted, “Mobilization is the only proven way for a campaign to close that gap [between the number of supporters it has and the number it needs to win].”

I argued that while mobilization remains vitally important, putting all of one’s chips on that number would mean certain defeat for Democrats. In competitive states and districts there just aren’t enough Democrats. This week, I’m delving more deeply into exactly why a turnout-only strategy is doomed.

Consider first the punishing arithmetic. Let’s start with a very oversimplified case, a model. Imagine a world with 200 voters and 50 percent turnout across the board. Say 40 percent are Democrats, 40 percent are Republicans and 20 percent are independents (or at least voters whose partisanship is uncertain and can’t be mobilized by Democrats without fear of adding to the GOP total). That translates into a 50-50 race, with 40 voters each backing the Democrat and the Republican and 20 votes uncertain. 

Now say, through what we will see would be a miraculous application of turnout technology, Democrats generate an increase in turnout of 10 percentage points among their partisans, and Republicans do nothing. You’ll then have 48 people supporting the Democrat, but now you need 55 votes to win. You lose unless you can persuade 35 percent of those independents to vote for you. Alas, you have no money left for persuasion because you’ve followed advice to spend it all on turnout. Whoops.

Among the vast oversimplifications in this little model is the notion that campaigns can increase turnout by 10 percentage points. Research suggests that’s a fantasy.

One strand of turnout research uses experiments to measure the effect of get-out-the-vote (GOTV) programs. Professor Donald Green, one of the originators of this approach, and some colleagues analyzed 147 distinct experimental treatments reported in both published and unpublished studies. They found the strongest subset increased turnout an average of 2.85 percentage points among those who were contacted. Some individual studies produced bigger impacts but none approached 10 points, and the higher numbers were obviously rare.

Another set of researchers has tried to estimate the impact of the Obama campaign’s unprecedented, massive and data-driven turnout effort. Aaron Strauss, late of our firm and now executive director of the Analyst Institute, estimated the “Obama campaign’s mobilization tactics increased turnout among targeted Democrats by about 1.7 percentage points.”

On the high side, analysis by professors Ryan D. Enos and Anthony Fowler found GOTV activities increased turnout by 6 to 7 percentage points. For some smaller subgroups, the effect was even greater, but given all the evidence reviewed here, these impacts seem exaggerated.

A third strand of research attempts to estimate the impact of GOTV efforts on actual vote totals. Professor Seth Masket estimated the Obama campaign’s turnout efforts added 0.6 points to his margin in 2008 and 0.3 points in 2012. Another scholar, Seth Hill, using a different empirical strategy, calculated that turnout efforts in Florida increased the 2008 Democratic vote by 0.8 points, close to Masket’s estimate.

I’ve done campaigns where less than 0.8 of a point, or the equivalent of a 1.7- or 2.5 percentage point increase in turnout, determined the outcome, so you’ll never catch me denigrating the importance of turning out voters, even as the science indicates its impact is quite limited. But even if the impact of GOTV is limited, the real question for campaigns is how does its effect compare to persuasion?

We will explore that question in a future column.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.


Whether winning for you means getting more votes than your opponent, selling more product, changing public policy, raising more money or generating more activism, The Mellman Group transforms data into winning strategies.