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Home Opinion Of doors and voters
France • Voters • Engagement

Of doors and voters

Guillaume Liegey, Arthur Muller & Vincent Pons - 27 March 2013

The political party of the must embrace the wealth of knowledge created by modern science in adapting old methods to new circumstances


A world record was broken in 2012: the number of doors knocked on by political volunteers (in France alone, 5 million doors were knocked, by 80,000 volunteers). In the United States, the Netherlands and France, voter mobilization through door-to-door canvassing was at the core of campaign teams’ winning strategies. In two of these countries (Netherlands, France), this was unprecedented. These successes are likely to reinforce the momentum around voter mobilization. Across Europe, many progressive political parties are adding door-to-door canvassing to their traditional arsenal for future campaigns. We believe this new paradigm will have lasting effects on how campaigns are run and more broadly on the functioning of political parties and modern democracies.

Over the past fifteen years, campaigning has increasingly been shaped by science. Political researchers and practitioners have led dozens of field experiments, improving the knowledge available in political science about the determinants of political behaviour and how to best win votes. During the latest Obama campaign, RCTs (randomised control trials) had become a standard campaign tool; they were used to compare the relative effectiveness of different interventions seeking to increase voters’ propensity to vote or their likelihood to join the campaign as volunteers. Beyond the tactical lessons of all these experiments, there is one key insight for those who wish to modernise the way politics is done: nothing beats face-to-face contact with voters. Obama for America 2012 used the most sophisticated statistical models for a very practical purpose: identifying specific voters who should be targeted by campaign volunteers.

The first evidence of the power of direct interaction came from the seminal work of Alan Gerber and Donald Green. Their RCT in New Haven in 1998 opened the way for the comeback of door-to-door canvassing in US campaigns. Building upon their research, we organised in 2010 a randomised experiment with the Parti socialiste in France – the first study that rigorously measured the impact of door-to-door canvassing on turnout in this country. While this door-to-door partisan canvassing did not affect the participation among citizens of the mainstream population, it strongly increased the participation of foreign-born citizens and their descendants. This experiment enabled us to isolate a specific channel through which canvassing can affect turnout: by increasing the sense of belonging to the national community among the least integrated citizens.

All volunteers who participated in the door-knocking project were members of the Parti socialiste. They greatly enjoyed the experience of engaging directly with voters and encouraging them to vote. For most of them, it was the first time they ever knocked on doors. Still, some had been party members for over a decade. Door-to-door, an activity directed at non-voters, was a tradition in the 1970s but slowly disappeared from campaign strategies, for two reasons:

First, political parties in France tended to focus their efforts on persuading active voters rather than reaching out to non-voters.

Second, most party activities were self-centered and members’ time was spent in fratricide debates rather than fieldwork in local communities. Party members would hence have little interactions outside of the party sphere. Things changed in 2012: François Hollande’s voter mobilization campaign gathered 80,000 volunteers who knocked at 5 million doors in four months – the largest field campaign ever organised in Europe.

What can political parties in other countries learn from this?

The political party of the future will embrace the wealth of knowledge made available by political science and design its strategies based on rigorous scientific evidence. Also, it will devote resources to build a perennial mobilization infrastructure, notably to engage with citizens who see politics as a remote and foreign world.

Very few parties have yet made a rule of systematically using research results to craft campaign strategies. Yet political science and applied psychology can now teach campaigners which messages best get voters out to vote, which canvassers should be matched with the voters they canvass, and in which way, or what the right timing of these visits is.

During the latest Obama campaign, the 50 highly trained experts that were part of the analytics team and were responsible for crunching immense datasets and microtargeting the citizens to be directly contacted by campaign volunteers did not start from scratch: the Democratic Party had already made a habit of using experimental tests to build predicting models and it had collected vast datasets about citizens’ registration status, past voting history as well as huge commercial databases.

Such an analytics team could be a building block of a larger permanent mobilization infrastructure, active both during and outside of campaign periods. Making mobilization a priority, the political party of the future will engage with voters – active and inactive – in between elections. This would strengthen the relationship between parties and voters, since the latter would not be solely contacted on the eve of Election Day but engaged in a longer-term dialogue. The latter is a great means to collect first-hand information about the state of public opinion and receive feedback on government policy and ongoing public debates. In late 2010, Parti socialiste’s volunteers we had worked with during our experiment decided to knock on voters’ doors to discuss Nicolas Sarkozy’s pension system reform and expose their counterarguments. They received a warm welcome from voters, who had not expected to receive the visit of political volunteers one year before the next campaign cycle.

Off campaign periods can also be used to run experiments and address key questions such as: What drives citizens to volunteer and engage in politics? What are the most effective messages to highlight the failures of government policy when your party is in opposition? Which voter segments are more likely to support you? All these questions can be tested outside of campaign periods.

As they build up expertise in mobilization strategies, parties can start sharing their knowledge with local civic organizations and become incubators for community organizing projects, especially in low-income neighbourhoods. They have the resources and expertise to organise training: during the last presidential campaigns in France, more than 150 sessions took place to train 6,000 field organisers. The infrastructure built during the campaign should be made more permanent and even accessible to non-party members. The American embassy in France organised community organizing training sessions for young leaders from the banlieues – France’s disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Le Monde journalist Luc Bronner explained that “Thanks to this operation, the American embassy has built the best network in the banlieues”. Why wouldn’t political parties do the same and open training programs to local community leaders?

We believe such changes are very likely to happen. The question is rather: in your country, which party will be the first to use this type of rigorous experimental testing to target abstentionnists and find effective ways to mobilise engage with them?

Parties and candidates have a direct interest in building a long-lasting relationship with voters, especially in areas where political engagement is weak. Doing so they will increase the size of their electorate and expand their base of volunteers, which will further improve their ability to mobilise voters. This alignment of private interest (gaining votes) and public interest (improving voter mobilization and political engagement) here is quite unique, making it possible to invent new approaches to revitalise the way democracy works.

Political competition is likely to help spread the innovations we described. In France, following the introduction of open primaries by the Parti socialiste for the 2012 presidential election, politicians from UMP – the rival conservative party – called for a similar move for 2017. The same holds true for door-to-door canvassing: inspired by François Hollande’s campaign, several UMP candidates for the parliamentary elections started knocking on doors.

There is of course a constant tension between innovation and inertia in political parties but the field of campaigning, in the US and beyond, has recently shown a rare predisposition to overcome resistance to change.

Guillaume Liegey, Arthur Muller and Vincent Pons managed François Hollande's voter mobilization campaign for the French presidential election. They founded Liegey Muller Pons, a political strategy firm, to help progressive political parties in France, Europe and beyond to organise large-scale field campaign. Together they are the authors of the forthcoming book, Porte à porte: Reconquerir la democratie sur le terrain.

This is a contribution to the joint Policy Network / Center for American Progress - Global Progress essay series on The Party of the Future: Coalition‐building and a new style of politics.

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Party Politics, Government and Elections .

Tags: Party of the Future , Of Doors and Voters , France , Guillaume Liegey , Arthur Muller , Vincent Pons , Campaign , Election , US , United States , Netherlands , Obama , Barack Obama , Democrats , Democratic Party , Alan Gerber , Donald Green , Parti socialiste , Socialist Party , PS , UMP , Union for a Popular Movement , Union pour un Mouvement , Francois Hollande , Luc Bronner ,

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