By Carl Carter
*Bad Morpheus voice*: What if I told you that campaigning doesn’t really get votes?
Not even canvassing?
Nope. Nor phone banking, nor literature, nor robocalls, nor signs, nor any of the other things that we obsessed over for most of the past year. Oh yeah, and TV and online ads probably don’t work either.
Democrats in Alabama had to figure out the hard way what UC Berkeley political scientist Joshua Kalla and Stanford professor David Broockman told us in 2017.
The professors analyzed the results of 49 field experiments on the persuasive effects of campaign contact and advertising. Here’s what they found: “The best estimate for the persuasive effects of campaign contact and advertising – such as mail, phone calls, and canvassing – on Americans’ candidate choices in general elections is zero. Our best guess for online and television advertising is also zero, but there is less evidence on these modes.”
Sure, it flies against our common sense (and I campaigned on a slogan of “Common Sense!”) Every campaign begins with hopes of winning people over by the sheer power of our logic and persuasive arguments.
During my recent campaign for State Senate District 11, my volunteers and I rang a couple thousand doorbells. We called thousands of others. Our top-line message was the need to reduce or eliminate Alabama’s grocery tax. We pointed out that Alabama has the highest tax on groceries in the country, and that only a few states fully tax groceries. For months, we got enthusiastic thumbs up, and voters told us, “I sure agree with that.”
On election day, we pulled 24% of the vote. Why?
In a word, party. Kalla and Broockman found that campaigns actually can be effective in primary and ballot campaigns where party isn’t a factor. But it only works months before an election, when there’s no party involved (such as in a primary). And then the impact only lasts a few weeks. The same tactics quit working closer to election day and appear to accomplish nothing. Even GOTV efforts aimed at friendly audiences have little or no effect.
By election day, “the effects of early campaign contact and advertising decay and the immediate effects of subsequent contact and advertising almost always go to zero.”
The dreary verdict is that “Voters in general elections appear to bring their vote choice into line with their predispositions close to election day and are difficult to budge from there.”
I’m still struggling with that, and I know a lot of other losing Democrats and campaign workers are as well. If we take it at face value, it means we’re probably doomed to minority status until we have more Democrats in Alabama. That’s not a problem in Jefferson County, but in most rural parts of the state, we have a long way to go. Demographic shifts will help some, as the population skews younger. But I’ll be dead and gone before that starts bring us wins.
The only real hope I can offer is to do what the Republicans have done for years – carry out a long-term program of increasing our influence throughout the state. In 2018, we tried to start at the top, challenging powerful Republicans at all levels of state government, with little foundation. While we’ve been watching Netflix for the last decade, the Republicans have been dominating city councils, zoning boards and other bodies at the local level. Likewise, we have to build from the ground up and establish credibility at the grass roots level. I’ve already offered to work with the school board to take a second try at passing a badly needed property tax for schools in St. Clair County. All I can say is, look around. See when your city council is up for re-election and consider running. Those races are non-partisan, so you probably won’t have to overcome the handicap of being tied to Nancy Pelosi.
At some point, we have to ask ourselves whether our driving force is to get elected or to make our society better. If it’s the latter, we shouldn’t be too proud to go local.
Are we picking the right battles?
How to best support our candidates
Who are we, really?