Person-to-person organizing is the most effective tool we have for boosting turnout, but there’s a problem with it: voters are hard to reach. When you’re canvassing, most of the doors you knock go unanswered. 

Peer pressure is pretty good, too. But when the person doing outreach is a stranger — someone a voter will never interact with again — the absence of accountability reduces the power of whatever message a campaign is trying to deliver.

Then there’s the credibility problem. Public trust in institutions of all kinds — from the press to government — is falling. And campaigns aren’t exempt. Too often, there’s no reason for a voter to believe an organizer when she says a particular election is important.

But outreach focused on existing relationships has the potential to cut through all that. Friends and family don’t dodge our calls. We’re accountable to those we know. And the trust we have in each other has never been higher. 

That’s why so many different political groups and campaigns are building relational organizing experiments into their core programs. And now there’s new research to show we should be optimistic about those efforts

Donald Green is a political scientist at Columbia University. He literally wrote the book on GOTV experiments. In 2019, he and a colleague named Oliver McClellan worked with a nonpartisan group called Turnout Nation to conduct a series of randomized experiments to evaluate the effectiveness of relational organizing for voter mobilization. 

They describe the results of the experiment as “truly remarkable.” 

Here’s how it worked: Turnout Nation recruited 43 volunteer captains in four states: California, Connecticut, Colorado, and Ohio. Those captains were then assigned targets lists of voters who lived nearby and a directive to get their targets to show up on Election Day. 

In Ohio, the Turnout Nation team went a step further. A staff organizer offered additional instruction and coordinated ongoing check-ins with the volunteer captains. 

Both experiment treatments showed promise. Across all four states, Green and McClellan saw a 13.2 percent increase in turnout probability. In Ohio — with the addition of more support structure — that number rose to 17.1 percent.

Green and McClellan write: “The Turnout Nation experiment breaks new ground. It is the first to test the effectiveness of a decentralized mobilization model in which “captains” target family, friends, and acquaintances. Although prior studies have attempted to orchestrate and test friend-to-friend mobilization, mobilizers did not assume the role of captains and take on the responsibility of getting a targeted list of voters to the polls. Perhaps as a result, friend-to-friend efforts have tended to produce disappointing effects due to a lack of follow-through. The present study suggests that this model can work, especially when supervisors ensure that captains make the efforts necessary to repeatedly contact everyone on their target list.” 

It’s also interesting to think about how better technology could support more of the follow-through that relational organizing needs to be more effective. Sabina Tarnówka, a strategist here at Blue State, has written a white paper looking at a set of the most popular apps for supporting this work —take a look at it here


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