What is the value of political leaflets?
November 4, 2018 8:33 AM   Subscribe

Do the people who send me political leaflets in the mail and hang them on my door actually think they will influence me? Have there been studies showing that they are effective? They go straight into my recycling bin without a glance. Thanks.
posted by KleenexMakesaVeryGoodHat to Law & Government (24 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Bear in mind that we got a 50% participation rate on a good day. There might be a lot of people who see them and think, "Oh, there's an election?" I suspect they're rather broadly targeted at people at the lower levels of engagement.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 8:45 AM on November 4, 2018 [7 favorites]

They’re performative more than they are effective, and they are not designed to work on you, but for the volunteer who folded or hung them. You want to help a candidate but not talk to people, especially people with whom you already have a relationship (who you’d be most likely to be able to persuade)? Fold leaflets! Stuff envelopes! See, you did something!

On the bright side, I view the ones through the mail as the corruption of our political system inadvertently significantly benefitting our postal system.
posted by suncages at 8:47 AM on November 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

It's a numbers game. They're casting a wide net. They're not thinking about you specifically at all. I don't mean that dismissively or that you aren't deserving, it's just a r-selected type effort.
posted by humboldt32 at 9:00 AM on November 4, 2018 [4 favorites]

I think some people really do vote according to "oh I've heard of that guy." So raising name familiarity has to be part of it.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:02 AM on November 4, 2018 [13 favorites]

On the bright side, I view the ones through the mail as the corruption of our political system inadvertently significantly benefiting our postal system.

And the print media industry as well. I've gotten a ton this year, all the same size, same card stock, and all color printed. I just tear off my address for shredding and recycle. If there is anything trashing the opponent or other political party, I don't read those, but am open to reading other more mature ones and one candidate has actually earned my vote because of those ads.
posted by NoraCharles at 9:04 AM on November 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

They also remind people to donate.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:05 AM on November 4, 2018 [4 favorites]

I watch for the ones that tell me who the Democrats support for offices that don’t list party affiliations.
posted by FencingGal at 9:07 AM on November 4, 2018 [5 favorites]

Really, they're more likely to make me not vote for someone than anything else. I think the other commenters are correct to some degree. Like many other puzzling human behaviors, there are probably many conflicting motivations in play.

The only thing that is likely to get me to vote for a candidate is them actually stopping by to talk to me. And clearly the logistics of the situation are against that. Of course, the current maelstrom of evil is the exception to that....
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 9:08 AM on November 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

I agree it seems to be an attempt at a candidate saturation effect. (Or over saturation judging by how many I've gotten this year, wow) it's probably more if you're in a hot area (a highly contested seat or a district that's looks like it might flip), too?

On the plus side, whoever is hiring the elderly actors for my district candidate ads (Candidate X is going to take away my healthcare! And I'm old and vulnerable and worried about it! Etc) is doing a bang up job and I'm kind of pleased they're getting some benefit from it.
posted by pepper bird at 9:09 AM on November 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

To some extent, they're vestigial. Before the Internet, mail and phones were the only ways to target specific voters, and phone banks were labor-intensive. Mail is fairly efficacious, as well. If you consider the, uh, demographic profiles of the people who are most likely to vote, they're also the most likely to read junk mail. Those people are also less likely to use more modern communication methods like social media. So from the campaign's perspective, mail is a fairly low-cost, effective means to reach likely voters. The marginal cost is very low, so there's no real harm in blasting them out to other, less responsive voters.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:36 AM on November 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

In fact, the marginal cost of removing the names of people who will just throw the mailer in the trash from the master address list is probably higher than the marginal cost of printing and mailing the mailer to them.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:38 AM on November 4, 2018 [2 favorites]

If you have a leaflet on your door, it means someone came to your door to talk to you and you weren't home. One-on-one contact is extremely effective. But in lieu of being able to talk to you, they left the leaflet on your door instead. It's far less effective than someone talking to you, but it's something - name recognition alone helps people win elections. Studies show direct mail is more effective than, say, ads on TV, the radio, etc. Basically, the more direct the message is to the target, the better chance it has of resonating.
posted by AppleTurnover at 9:43 AM on November 4, 2018 [16 favorites]

I read a study on this a couple of years ago. I think it was something like leafleting changes the mind of 1 person in 1000. Or at least makes 1 person in 1000 vote for your candidate who would otherwise not have voted at all

(I did this because I'm not permitted to vote in the country I live in, so I wanted to find out how many leaflets I had to drop to do the equivalent of voting. The study I found was only for the USA, which was not helpful to me, but presumably is for you.)
posted by lollusc at 10:08 AM on November 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

Actually - they are highly targeted and effective! That's why politicians spend so much darn money on them.

How are they targeted?
You can actually get voter files that tell you: party affiliation, number of last elections someone voted in, whether they voted early/absent etc, the value of their home, how many people live in the home, if it is a family/singles living there, ethnicity AND MORE!!!

Those mailers you are getting MIGHT be just targeted at you due to your voting record (how many recent elections you voted in - not how you voted, that is still private), but a savvy candidate with $$$ will have targeted you with specific mailers based on the information above.

Regard you just chucking them. That's your choice, but many people don't - particularly the mailers that come from specific groups with a slate of candidates, for example your local Democratic Group. People actually hold on to them and bring them to the polls. Really. I promise, they do.

Also the name saturation is a big one. There is a candidate running for higher office in my area who has never held office before but has $$$$$$$$$$ and basically blasted all the mailboxes with mailers - every, single, day. People actually said to me, "wow, this candidate really has their act together and can clearly fundraise - I'm going to vote for them," even though they have NO track record and have NEVER held office.

In short: mailers work.

Leafletting is similar. They similarly know where you live, how many elections you voted in, and whether you are a likely person to vote for their candidate based on your demographics. There are now apps you can put on your phone to send people out to target specific audiences. Candidates without money will just send people out to hit every door and leave fliers (because they missed you!), candidates with $$ will spend it on that targeting - when you open the door, they know your name and everything about you.
posted by Toddles at 10:12 AM on November 4, 2018 [25 favorites]

Toddles has it. As an elected official who has sent mailers, I can tell you that they are not cheap but they are still effective. The printing isn’t too costly, but postage is very expensive. We do it to get our names in front of voters. That 5 seconds you look at as you are going from your mail box to your trash can is worth it.

There are studies, starting with Bob Zajonc and the “mere-exposure effect” research he did in the 1980s.

Because of Zajonc’s research, I laugh at most attack ads because the effect is opposite of what is intended in many cases, unless the design or message is compelling. (Some are effective as examples of propoganda, but that’s a whole other set of phychological processes.)

I mostly use the mailers to tell voters about my background and position. Follow-on ones may be focused on issues and why I’m the person who can address them effectively.
posted by rw at 10:38 AM on November 4, 2018 [3 favorites]

Great answers and discussion, everyone. Thank you. FYI, your Registrar of Voters probably has a free form you can submit to hide your address for future campaigns. I have already submitted mine. I expect a lot less junk in 2020. Thanks again. Don't forget to vote! Ha!
posted by KleenexMakesaVeryGoodHat at 10:43 AM on November 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

In my anecdotal experience, the best way to stop getting both canvassed and direct mailed to is to be a very regular, very partisan voter. I have voted in every general, primary and special election for well over a decade, and I vote Democrat. I've canvassed and volunteered and contributed money to Democratic campaigns regularly for years. I'm an ace in the hole and sending anyone or anything to me is a waste of money. This isn't to say I never get anything, but I don't get much. My husband got canvassed a couple times, but they never ask for me.

Having canvassed, I know that the lists you get of people to canvass are focused on the people most in need of outreach, usually people who tend to vote Democratic, and who do vote sometimes, but who don't vote in every election. I usually canvass in my own neighborhood which votes about 80% Democrat, but I'm not going to every house or even 80% of the houses, I'm going to specific houses that are being targeted for either voter education ("Have you heard of my candidate?") or GOTV ("Do you have a plan to vote on election day?"). I usually get skipped because my voting record makes it pretty clear that I'm in need of neither education nor GOTV.

That said, there's a drill-down effect where if everyone who's a high priority had already been contacted, they might start in on folks they skipped previously.
posted by soren_lorensen at 11:11 AM on November 4, 2018 [3 favorites]

I am a straight ticket voter who votes EVERY time. I have no clue who the leaflets come from as they hit the recycle the second they come in the door, so I don't get name recognition from them. But I do my research and make decisions that way. Anyway, thank you for the additional comments. I won't thread sit anymore.
posted by KleenexMakesaVeryGoodHat at 2:33 PM on November 4, 2018

I did canvassing for the Democratic candidates. I left the sheet that says who all the Democratic candidates are, and for the town council candidate. For local races, name recognition is very important.

Our candidate for governor, Janet Mills, didn't buy a lot of lawn signs A few people have been really angry about not being able to get a lawn sign. Research shows them to be pretty crappy value - expensive but not effective. So I respect her common sense.
posted by theora55 at 3:15 PM on November 4, 2018

Anecdotally, we decided who to vote for based on leaflets put into our hands on Saturday when we early voted; we hadn't noticed that one of the judge races had two Dems (unlike us, but it's been a week), and both were out shaking hands on Saturday and handing out leaflets. They both seemed just fine, but we voted for the one who'd gotten the endorsement from our state's major LFBT org. And we were reassured that we'd made the right call about our Congressperson because of the endorsement from the local Black politicians PAC that landed in our mailboxes last week. So some of the flyers were useful to us (straight Dem voters, one white, one Black), much as I hate to admit it (we were doing our homework about the soil and water conservation supervisor, so it's not like we don't pay attention to elections).
posted by joycehealy at 3:24 PM on November 4, 2018

I've worked on several political campaigns, both directly for candidates and for advocacy orgs working to help turn out progressive voters for Democrats. The truth is, direct mail is not terribly effective for turning out or persuading voters - but it can have some impact.

I have seen a bunch of studies on this (none of which I can find right now as I take a break from the GOTV work I'm doing today!) but in general, the effectiveness varies a lot depending on what dependent variable you're looking at (are you trying to turn out your base to the polls, or persuade undecideds), as well as variables like how good the mailer itself is, how high-profile the race is, and the trustworthiness of the messenger (for instance, a mailer from a union to its members will be more effective than a mailer directly from the campaign).

A few other things to keep in mind:
- Direct mail of any kind is always more effective with middle-to-upper-middle-class people, and with older people. Those people vote.
- Even if it's only a little bit effective, campaigns will still do it, because campaigns will do everything they can to turn out voters, especially in tight races.
- One thing that's really appealing about direct mail is that it's easier than a lot of other forms of outreach for the campaign to manage. You can plan it all well in advance (before everything gets really crazy), and campaign staff only need to be minimally involved (the firms that do direct mail pretty much handle everything, from design to the actual mailing). If you want, they will also take some direction from the campaign and then come up with all the messaging as well. Incidentally, this is why direct mail all looks the same and why it's not usually terribly effective, but it is what it is.
- You can be incredibly precise in your targeting. You can send slightly different mailers to married women in precinct A and unmarried women in precinct B.
- Finally, it's not that expensive compared to TV ads or having a huge field team. So even if it's not the most effective, why not just do it?

Frankly, I don't love direct mail myelf, and if I were running a campaign (which I will never do because it's hell), I would use it minimally, but there are good reasons for campaigns to use it.
posted by lunasol at 4:42 PM on November 4, 2018 [2 favorites]

Some of the candidates sending this mail are probably skeptical about its effectiveness as well. But here's one scenario why they send it anyway, at least where I live.

The mail houses that do the design, mailing, etc are partisan firms, as in they only work for Ds or only work for Rs. I am currently represented in my state house by a generally moderate politician. This puts her at odds with her party's leaders often. By sending plenty of mail though a mail house that exclusively works with her party, it's an indicator of being a team player.

Why, exactly? Because these mail houses often operate at-cost and donate their profits to other campaigns. So money donated by moderate voters to moderate candidate X gets spent to buy mail from partisan firm Y which then donates a lot of it to out-there-nut-job candidate Z of the same party. Thus wacky party leaders who love candidate Z go easy on the moderate candidate.

So you, the voter, and what you do with those fliers may just a small part of this.
posted by eelgrassman at 9:11 PM on November 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

In 1999 Gerber and Green published their first paper presenting a rigorously controlled experiment that produced a substantial turnout boost from canvassing in a municipal election in New Haven, Connecticut.[33] This study revived interest in the subject. Since then Gerber, Green, and other political scientists have conducted a program that verified those results, and tested what techniques are most effective. Foot canvassing is the most effective contact method, increasing turnout by about 7 percentage points, while phoning boosts it by 2.6 points. Other contact techniques such as direct mail, robocalls, and email have small to undetectable effects.[22] Other studies have found that canvassing can do more to boost turnout, and also win new votes at the door through persuasion.[34][35]

A 2018 study in the American Economic Review found that door-to-door canvassing on behalf of the Francois Hollande campaign in the 2012 French presidential election "did not affect turnout, but increased Hollande's vote share in the first round and accounted for one fourth of his victory margin in the second. Visits' impact persisted in later elections, suggesting a lasting persuasion effect."[36]
The new study’s authors, UC Berkeley political scientist Joshua Kalla and Stanford professor David Broockman, conclude that essentially no one targeted is persuaded.

This doesn’t mean that political campaigns never matter. Kalla and Broockman find that these activities can persuade voters in primary elections and during ballot-initiative campaigns. Campaigns can still effectively turn out voters whose minds are already made up about a candidate, and voters can and do change their opinions when prompted by politicians they already support (something a previous study of Broockman’s confirmed).
posted by ludwig_van at 10:53 PM on November 4, 2018

Just one note on the Gerber and Green study referenced above. It's THE gold standard of political field tests, but for context, the dependent variable there was voter turnout, not persuasion or getting people to vote on downballot races/ballot initiatives, which is what direct mail is usually more effective for.

My voter-turnout nerd friends had a lot of issues with the conclusions of the Kalla Broockman study and how they were reported, but I haven't looked at that one myself.

Dear lord, I can't believe I'm defending direct mail.
posted by lunasol at 4:49 PM on November 5, 2018

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