Door-to-door canvassing in Europe
The rich world has long been plagued by a steady decline in voter turnout. This trend concerns the very core of political science, because lower turnout worsens the existing inequalities in political participation and – ultimately – threatens the legitimacy of our democratic institutions (Lijphart 1997).
In recent research as well as contemporary political campaigns, different kinds of ‘get out the vote’ efforts have been suggested as the cure to this problem. Following the seminal works of Gerber and Green (2000), a fast growing literature has emerged that uses randomized experiments to test the mobilizing effectiveness of different campaign tactics. Door-to-door canvassing is generally proposed as the most cost-effective of these methods, trumping both phone calls and direct mail.
In addition to optimizing mobilization campaigns, such field experiments are also of scholarly interest because they deepen our knowledge about the reasons for why people vote. Previous studies have provided insights into why couples living together share similar voting behaviors (Nickerson 2008), why immigrants have a lower degree of political participation (Pons and Liegey 2013) and whether our decision to vote is most affected by intrinsic satisfaction from norm-compliance or from extrinsic incentives and concern about what other people think of us (Gerber, Green, and Larimer 2008).
While field experiments are blessed with strong internal validity, they are also characterized by a limited external validity. It is therefore unfortunate that with few exceptions, almost every experiment has been conducted in the United States. While door-to-door canvassing is becoming increasingly popular in the rest of the world, many have questioned its effectiveness outside the US.
In this paper I report the results from a field experiment carried out in the Swedish county of Södermanland, where 11 640 citizens were randomly assigned to one treatment and one control group. The experiment was conducted in cooperation with the Social Democratic party, as a part of their campaign during the 2014 European elections. Approximately 60 per cent of the households in the treatment group were visited by party members, who asked them to vote in the election and suggested that they should vote for the Social Democrats.
The results of this experiment strengthen the case for door-to-door canvassing in Europe. The electoral rolls show that being visited by a canvasser increases the probability of voting with 3.6 percentage points. However, the effect differs substantially between subgroups. No effect was found among voters with a very high or very low propensity to vote. For citizens who voted in the last national election, but refrained in the previous European election, the estimated effect was 6.0 percentage points. I also find larger effects for young people, those living in single-family houses and for people in large households, compared to old people, people living in flats and single-person households.
Gerber, Alan S., Donald P. Green, and Christopher W. Larimer (2008). ‘Social Pressure and Voter Turnout: Evidence from a Large-Scale Field Experiment’. In: American Political Science Review 102.1, pp. 33–48.
Gerber, AS and DP Green (2000). ‘The effects of canvassing, telephone calls, and direct mail on voter turnout: A field experiment’. In: American Political Science Review.
Lijphart, A (1997). ‘Unequal participation: democracy’s unresolved dilemma’. In: American political science review.
Nickerson, DW (2008). ‘Is voting contagious? Evidence from two field experiments’. In: American Political Science Review 102.1, pp. 49–57.
Pons, Vincent and Guillaume Liegey (2013). ‘Increasing the Electoral Participation of Immigrants – Experimental Evidence from France’.