Why did Mike Lee send those emails?

In 2008, some political scientists from Yale found that they could boost turnout considerably (by 8.1 percentage points) if they warned folks that everybody on their street would receive a postcard after the election reporting who had voted and who had not.

Apparently, somebody on Mike Lee’s campaign staff follows the political science research–but not as closely as he should.

Shortly before election day, Republican Senate candidate Mike Lee reportedly sent an email to his Republican supporters urging them to remind their neighbors to vote. Emails like that aren’t uncommon. But Lee’s went a step further. Each recipient received a list of neighbors’ names and contact information. The email indicated that the names belonged to registered Republicans who had not turned out in a recent election.

Some folks who received these emails were disturbed. They found it strange that Lee would publicize other voters’ turnout records and contact information. (Read more in the Daily Herald.) So why did Mike Lee do it?

I can’t say for sure, but I’m guessing that Mike Lee had a staffer who follows the political science literature. In 2008, some political scientists from Yale found that they could boost turnout considerably (by 8.1 percentage points) if they warned folks that everybody on their street would receive a postcard after the election reporting who had voted and who had not. That’s a huge effect, and the postcards were inexpensive to send. (Read more about this study.)

An 8.1 percentage point boost in turnout is enough to swing a competitive election (not that Lee’s was competitive). No wonder Lee tried it.

There’s one problem. The folks who published the originally study mentioned in a footnote that they received many angry phone calls and letters from people who were upset that their voting histories had been made public. Maybe Lee’s campaign missed that footnote. Press coverage made it sound like they got some blowback of their own.

More recent research has tried to find other ways of exploiting this “peer pressure” effect without provoking negative blowback. If future candidates want to try something like what Lee did, they might want to read up on this more recent research. I have reviewed this more recent research elsewhere.

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About Adam Brown

Adam Brown is an assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University and a research fellow with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. You can learn more about him at his website.
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