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October 11, 2018
Get Out The Vote: Messaging For The Win

Incredibly, we’re only 29 days out from the election! With ballots starting to drop in various states, it’s officially time to Get Out The Vote (GOTV). But what messaging works best to motivate folks to actually vote?

There are lots of field tactics to turn out voters, but any industry insider will tell you that a method is only as good as your message. There isn’t a ton of published research on GOTV-specific messaging. But there is a lots of research on messaging in larger social psychological and consumer contexts. In this post we review current recommendations for GOTV messaging, and research-based recommendations for messaging in general. Many of these recommendations have their origins in decades of psychological research outside of the political realm, often from social and consumer psychology.

GOTV Messaging Basics

— Industry studies indicate that effects of candidate-centered GOTV messages are similar to the effects of not being contacted at all for voter turnout (in other words: not very effective). This does not mean that candidate-centered GOTV messages “don’t work” — it just means it may not be as effective as other messages discussed below.
— GOTV messages highlighting information about the voting process itself are effective at increasing turnout.
— Current recommendations are cold messages (from strangers or campaigns one has not opted into) or warm messages (from familiar campaigns or people) that inform people of voting information like their polling place, the hours of polling locations, and the dates polls are open.
— Warm messages that talk people through making a plan to vote are also effective.
— Analyst Institute has 6 specific current recommendations for GOTV messaging: 1) Focus on voting, not on persuasion, 2) get people to tell you why they think voting is important, 3) use gentle social pressure messaging, 4) walk the person through their plan to vote, 5) ask the person to make a pledge to vote, and 6) have an authentic conversation with the voter.

5 Techniques For GOTV Messaging

5 Techniques For GOTV Messaging
Techniques & Tips for GOTV Messaging by Mallory Roman

1. Identity:

Some of the strongest recommendations come from identity work in social psychology. Essentially, there are some kinds of desirable identities (e.g., workers, citizens) and there are undesirable identities (e.g., unemployed, disenfranchised), and people are motivated to align themselves with desirable identities. However, there is often a discrepancy between where people actually are and where they would ideally like or ought to be. When you highlight this discrepancy, people become motivated to close the gap (1). The power of identity can be harnessed in political messaging by focusing on the desirability of “being a voter” as opposed to simply the act of “voting”(2). Research has found that voters exposed to “voter” language registered to vote and turned out to vote at higher rates than people who were exposed to “voting” language. From a psychology perspective, this is likely because people are either not currently voters and want to be the kind of people who are, or because people are already voters and don’t want to lose that status.

2. Social norms:

Social norms are accepted societal beliefs about the way one should behave. Researchers have found that there are two kinds: injunctive norms (which tell us what we should do), and descriptive norms (which tell us what others are doing). Experiments in social psychology have found that descriptive norms are much more powerful than injunctive norms in influencing a wide range of behaviors from getting people to participate in water conservation efforts at hotels to decreasing littering (3,4). Powerful GOTV messages invoke social norms. Making it clear that a non-voter is surrounded by voters is far more effective than talking about how many people don’t vote (5,6). Researchers have found that many GOTV messages contain an inherent mistake, which is juxtaposing injunctive norms that people should vote with descriptive norms that not a lot of people are voting (e.g., not a lot of people are voting this year, but you should vote)(7,8). The most powerful messages will align descriptive and injunctive norms to feel the full effect of both (7,8).

3. Social pressure:

Social pressure is an umbrella term for campaign tactics that draw attention to social norms and make clear that one’s responses are public (5,6). This makes social pressure a one-two punch of social norms and desirable identities: It emphasizes that the descriptive norm is to vote or to register to vote, and also makes it clear that your reputation could be in jeopardy if you fail to act. Two widely studied types of social pressure are shame-inducing social pressure (pointing out that a voter has failed to vote in the past), and pride-inducing social pressure (thanking people for past desirable voting behavior) (5,6,9,10). While some research indicates that shame-inducing social pressure is more effective than pride-inducing social pressure, industry insiders recommend campaigns use positive, pride-inducing social pressure to avoid backlash against the candidate. Outside spenders and agents have more leeway. A common type of mailer that uses ‘hard social pressure’ is a detailed voter report card that shows you your voting record alongside the voting records of your neighbors. They often mention that they will send a similar report card after the election to really drive the social pressure home.

4. Commitment and consistency:

GOTV tactics like commit to vote cards harness a principle of persuasion called commitment and consistency: the idea that people like to keep their word (11). Once we have committed to doing something, we are simply more likely to do it. This principle is based on cognitive dissonance (12). If people have given their word that they will do something, it creates a state of mental discomfort to not follow through. The only thing that truly alleviates the discomfort is following through with your commitment. If you can get people to commit to vote, they are more likely to follow through and actually vote. The important part is focusing on making the commitment significant enough. This is the reason most commit to vote cards have an area to put your signature. Signing our names to something is a universal indication of commitment. Some research does indicate that simply asking people whether or not they intend to vote is enough to activate this principle, triggering what some researchers call a ‘self-prophecy effect’ where people act in accordance with the prediction they made about whether or not they would vote (13,14). However, as leading scholars Green and Gerber observe, self-prophecy results are inconsistent, perhaps partially because they are basically a weaker version of a standard commitment and consistency appeal (15).

5. Gratitude:

Research in social psychology has suggested that people act more prosocially (in accordance with societal good) in response to expressions or feelings of gratitude. Some researchers argue that expressing gratitude towards another person has a “moral reinforcer” function such that receiving gratitude for one’s actions encourages one to behave similarly in the future (16). This may be because gratitude increases feelings that one’s contributions are valued by others (17). Pride-inducing social pressure mailers take advantage of this aspect of human nature, but some researchers have found that the expressing gratitude to voters for being aware and involved in the political process increases their chance of voting even without mentioning their voting record (18). This indicates that blanket statements of gratitude may be as effective at turning out voters as positive social pressure messaging that often needs to be personalized. In general, gratitude should be expressed to voters for something they have already done to activate the reinforcement function.

Closing Note

Remember: one size doesn’t fit all. It’s important to play with your messaging to find out what works best for you and the voters you are trying to reach. Choosing an effective strategy and employing an effective message can go a long way towards getting voters off the couch and down to the polls!


GOTV Messaging Reading List:

  1. Higgins, E. T. (1987). Self-discrepancy: A theory relating self and affect. Psychological Review94(3), 319–340.
  2. Bryan, C. J., Walton, G. M., Rogers, T., & Dweck, C. S. (2011). Motivating voter turnout by invoking the self. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America108(31), 12653–12656.
  3. Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of Consumer Research35(3), 472–482.
  4. Cialdini, R. B., Reno, R. R., & Kallgren, C. A. (1990). A focus theory of normative conduct: recycling the concept of norms to reduce littering in public places. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology58(6), 1015–1026.
  5. Gerber, A. S., Green, D. P., & Larimer, C. W. (2008). Social pressure and voter turnout: Evidence from a large-scale field experiment. American Political Science Review102(1), 33–48.
  6. Gerber, A. S., Green, D. P., & Larimer, C. W. (2010). An experiment testing the relative effectiveness of encouraging voter participation by inducing feelings of pride or shame. Political Behavior32(3), 409–422.
  7. Gerber, A. S., & Rogers, T. (2009). Descriptive social norms and motivation to vote: Everybody’s voting and so should you. The Journal of Politics71(1), 178–191.
  8. Murray, G. R., & Matland, R. E. (2014). Mobilization effects using mail: Social pressure, descriptive norms, and timing. Political Research Quarterly67(2), 304–319.
  9. Abrajano, M., & Panagopoulos, C. (2011). Does language matter? The impact of Spanish versus English-language GOTV efforts on Latino turnout. American Politics Research39(4), 643–663.
  10. Panagopoulos, C., Larimer, C. W., & Condon, M. (2014). Social pressure, descriptive norms, and voter mobilization. Political Behavior36(2), 451–469.
  11. Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: Science and practice (Vol. 4). Boston, MA: Pearson education.
  12. Festinger, L. (1962). A theory of cognitive dissonance (Vol. 2). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  13. Greenwald, A. G., Carnot, C. G., Beach, R., & Young, B. (1987). Increasing voting behavior by asking people if they expect to vote. Journal of Applied Psychology72(2), 315–318.
  14. Cho, D. (2008). Acting on the intent to vote: A voter turnout experiment. Unpublished manuscript.
  15. Green, D. P., & Gerber, A. S. (2015). Get out the vote: How to increase voter turnout (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
  16. McCullough, M. E., Kilpatrick, S. D., Emmons, R. A., & Larson, D. B. (2001). Is gratitude a moral affect? Psychological Bulletin127(2), 249–266.
  17. Grant, A. M., & Gino, F. (2010). A little thanks goes a long way: Explaining why gratitude expressions motivate prosocial behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology, 98(6), 946–955.
  18. Panagopoulos, C. (2011). Thank you for voting: Gratitude expression and voter mobilization. The Journal of Politics73(3), 707–717.