February 1, 2016


Why Ted Cruz's Dishonest Mailing May Not Have Even Worked Anyway (Jesse Singal, 2/01/16, NY Magazine)

In addition to the fact that there's no such thing as a "voting violation," meaning this mailing probably freaked out a bunch of Iowans who had done nothing wrong, Mother Jones makes a strong case that the scores were likely made up, anyway -- amusingly, the Cruz campaign sent a mailer to a political-science professor at Iowa State who is very familiar with his own voting record, and he told MoJo that he was given a score of F despite having voted in five of the last six primary and general elections.

But setting aside the morality of this, it's fair to ask: Would it be likely to work? This is, after all, a behavioral-economics-flavored attempt to nudge people's behavior in one particular direction, toward voting, and there's been a lot of research on this.

MoJo notes that "This direct-mail strategy is inspired by social science that shows that a citizen is more likely to vote if he knows his neighbors will be told whether he went to the polls." Indeed, the mailer contains a line indicating that "A follow-up issue may be issued following Monday's caucuses," hinting at a wee bit of public shaming should someone fail to vote.

That's true, but there's an element of the mailer that may also nudge voters away from voting -- even setting aside the ick factor surely spreading over Iowa this morning as people find out about the dishonest mailing. Look at the numbers in the above tweet: It suggests everyone in his immediate neighborhood is crappy at voting. There's a chance that voters' response to this wouldn't be "Oh, I better vote," but rather "Hmmm, I guess voting just isn't that important to my local community, so I'm not going to bother."

In my 2014 article on why awareness-raising is overrated, I noted the possibility for this sort of backfire effect during certain types of campaigns:

In the most unfortunate cases, raising awareness can have the opposite of its intended effect. ... In one study famous to social scientists, visitors to Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park appeared to be more likely to steal petrified wood when presented with information about the high frequency of other park visitors' pilching, because the information "normalise[d] undesirable conduct," as the researchers put it -- if everyone else is stealing wood, who cares if I take some, too? 

Posted by at February 1, 2016 11:13 AM