Kevin Sweeny: Vote pledging — the evolution of the ground campaigns


In the nearly half a century since the legal voting age was set at 18, low participation rates among 18- to 24-year-old voters has perplexed candidates, consultants and researchers.

With the ever-growing importance of field campaigns, a renewed effort to reach and mobilize these younger voters — at the local, state and national levels — will be indispensable.

A relatively new trend is emerging to get these prized electors to the polls — vote pledging — and it is finally warranting closer scrutiny. No doubt, this strategy will be put to the test by field campaigns in both the 2018 midterms and beyond.

First, some background; in the political ecosystem, the “youth vote” is a somewhat new concept.

Driven in large part by the military draft, which conscripted men between the ages of 18 and 21, the push to lower the voting age moved quickly.

In March 1971, the U.S. Senate voted 94—0 in favor of proposing a Constitutional amendment, guaranteeing the minimum voting age could not be higher than 18. Thirteen days later, the House of Representatives voted 401—19 in favor of the proposed amendment.

On July 1, 1971, the 26th Amendment was ratified, giving those 18 years of age and older the right to vote.

Nevertheless, in 1972, only 51 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds made their way to the ballot box, compared to 70 percent of those ages 25 years and older.

Forty-four years later, the participation rates of the younger demographic are no better, lagging behind those 25 years of age and older, with 50 percent participation as compared to 65 percent.

We can point to many reasons for the participation gap between older and younger voters, including lack of geographic stability, logistics of when and where to vote (usually a deterrent to newly registered voters), education and income.

Some evidence suggests allowing young citizens to register to vote before they are eligible, may increase voter turnout from this cohort. It has long been argued, with plenty of evidence to support, a fully operational field and grassroots campaign can play a critical factor in mobilizing specific voting blocks in successful campaigns.

Slowly, after some experimentation, a few field campaigns have realized the key to votes at the ballot box was securing a commitment from the voter and then following up to get them to stick to their pledge.

This approach likely overshadowed — yielding more significant results — the more traditional multiple door/phone outreach which was common until the 2004 cycle.

Modern and advanced field campaigns continue to test the effectiveness of collecting pledges and issuing reminders in person and across social media platforms.

Highly technical and sophisticated campaigns — which are adequately funded and have the workforce to do so — will ask voters to fill out pledge cards and personally return those cards ahead of Election Day.

This “get out the vote” (GOTV) tactic can be used to attract voters of all ages.

Few field campaigns indeed focus on mobilizing young voters because they believe there is a low return on investment (votes). However, “vote pledges” may be the tactic field campaigns can use to increase turnout in the under-24 voting bloc.

Vote pledging is a simple approach based on the premise that if a voter makes an “in-person commitment” to specific future behavior, they are more likely to follow through than a voter who was not asked explicitly to commit and sign a card.

An in-person commitment can be at the door or possibly over the phone.

This campaign tactic bridges cognitive psychology, which focuses on mental processes especially concerning the internal events occurring between sensory stimulation, open expression of behavior and comparative behaviorism.

Simply put, it suggests commitments to perform a specific action can significantly increase the likelihood of such action.

The mechanism of soliciting (and then enforcing) promises may be the most powerful tool in a field campaign’s psychological arsenal. While vote pledging is a relatively straightforward mobilization tactic, it invokes basic psychological processes above and beyond the traditional demographic parameters in models of voter turnout, such as education, race and age.

Theories of commitment, cognitive dissonance and self-perception imply pledging to vote may engage a whole host of behavioral mechanisms — and can be used to explain how an individual’s own actions can be used to persuade future performance.

While it appears simplistic, this theory has rarely been tested by researchers in the political arena. A randomized controlled experiment was conducted during the 2016 Pennsylvania primary election and the 2016 Colorado general election.

Experiments revealed individuals who pledged to vote were more likely to turn out than those contacted using standard campaign materials, such as mailers and an election’s general information guides.

Further, pledging to vote significantly increased turnout among individuals who had never previously cast a ballot, thus having a particularly significant effect for bringing new voters into the electorate in large numbers, rather than just ensuring turnout among regular voters.

Overall, pledging to vote increased voter turnout by 3.7 points among all subjects and 5.6 points for people who had never voted before.

Showing a commitment behind “pledge to vote” increases the participation in elections, and could have real implications for increasing youth turnout.

These findings lend support for theories of commitment and have practical consequences for field campaign mobilization efforts with the goal of expanding the electorate.

It’s also a smart tactic we may see more of from campaigns in the 2018 cycle.

Successful field campaigns must evolve to include a compressive approach, which includes eliciting a pledge (or commitment) to vote coupled with a follow up to reinforce this pledge — all while staying within budget.


Kevin Sweeny is Operations Director for the Florida Justice Association.

Guest Author


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