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Mann: Is There Backlash to Social Pressure? A Large-scale Field Experiment on Voter Mobilization

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Mann, Christopher B. 2010. Is There Backlash to Social Pressure? A Large-scale Field Experiment on Voter Mobilization. Political Behavior 32 (September): 387-407.

In 2008, Gerber et al. published a pioneering study of mobilization. Using heavy-handed tactics, they found that they could shame people into voting (read more). Using heavy-handed tactics might be fine for academics, but real-world campaigns can't use those tactics without alienating their supporters.

For example, Utah's Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, Mike Lee, sent out mobilization postcards in October 2010 that were apparently inspired by Gerber et al.'s heavy-handed tactics. Mike Lee sent Republican voters their neighbors' turnout records, hoping that Republicans would use this information to mobilize one another to vote. Instead, he was accused of unethically violating voter privacy (see news coverage from a Utah paper).

Gerber et al.'s original study reported that tactics like these generated complaints, but when academics do an experiment these complaints don't target a candidate. By contrast, Mike Lee's partisan use of the same tactics generated blowback .

All this leads to Christopher Mann's article in the current issue of Political Behavior, part of a special issue on social pressure and turnout (read some background). Mann replicates two of the heavy-handed tactics from Gerber et al.'s article. Then, in two additional treatments, he softens the tone of each mailer to see whether it will still have the same effect on turnout. So here's the four resulting treatments:

The "help" and "survey" additions to Gerber et al.'s treatments were designed to reduce complaints and soften the "big brother" feel of the mailers. Perusing the sample mailers in Mann's appendix (well, in the article's appendix), the revised mailers do sound far gentler. And here's what campaign consultants will love: The gentler mailers had the same strong effect on turnout. Here's a summary:

(Gerber et al)
"Self" plus helpNA+1.9
"Hawthorne" plus surveyNA+2.2

Punchline: Gentler mailers can have the same effect as heavy-handed ones. There is no statistically meaningful difference between Mann's harsh treatments and the gentler ones. Perhaps candidates like Mike Lee should soften their approach if they want to harness the power of social pressure.

Mann's research is well done. I see no methodological concerns with it. He included 78,179 voters in his study, which looked at the 2007 Kentucky gubernatorial race. Mann's effects are slightly smaller than Gerber et al.'s (roughly +2.0 for Mann vs +4.9 for Gerber et al.), but that probably reflects the different contexts that each study worked in; I discussed this issue yesterday while reviewing Panogopoulos's work.

Research on similar subjects


Mann, Christopher B. (author)American PoliticsExperimentMobilizationPeer PressurePolitical BehaviorTurnoutVoting

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