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The Hunt for Campaign Effects II

- January 23, 2009

In the 2008 election, did campaign activity matter? In my first post on this question, I was a bit dubious about some back-of-the-envelope analysis by Nate Silver. Now some new evidence is emerging, and Mark Blumenthal summarizes it in this interesting post (see also Andy’s and Brendan Nyhan’s reactions).

A first finding: in counties with higher numbers of new registrants and voter contacts by the Obama campaign and other progressive organizations, Obama did better vs. Kerry. Here is the slide from Catalist:


It’s chartjunky, but the positive associations are clear. Blumenthal describes this subsequent analysis:

bq. Did these campaign activities cause higher support for Obama? To try to get at an answer, [Erik] Brauner [chief scientist of Catalist] used a simple regression model and found that higher levels of personal contact, paid television advertising and new registration predicted higher support for Obama at the county level even after controlling for the most significant demographic variables (race, age, education, marriage, religious adherence and the presence of children in the household). We always need to be careful about assuming causation from correlations, but these results, as Brauner explained, show that personal contact by the Democratic campaign, voter registration activity and paid television advertising were “all acting together and explaining outcomes that are not explained simply by demographic factors.”

(There was, unfortunately, little evidence presented on the precise magnitude of personal contact’s effects, or attempting to parse the respective effects of contact, voter registration, and advertising.)

This correlational evidence is not ironclad, but it is more persuasive in light of the other evidence accumulated thus far — e.g., Seth Masket’s quickie analysis of the effect of Obama field offices in Colorado, as well as the many field experiments that show how voter contact boosts turnout.

Speaking of field experiments, Blumenthal also reports on this one by the SEIU:

bq. One such experiment involved post election survey work conducted in 11 states by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) on both experimental and control groups of their members. In this case they held back a random sample “control group” of voters who received no contact from SEIU during the campaign. They then surveyed both the control group of non-contacts and a random sample of all the other voters who received campaign mail and other contact by SEIU.

Here are the results:


The SEIU campaign activity made evaluations of McCain less favorable and evaluations of Obama more favorable. The effects are not large, but campaign effects in presidential elections rarely are. The question is whether the SEIU efforts were large-scale enough to actually affect outcomes in key states. As I’ve said before, I think this connection between individual- and aggregate-level effects is important to demonstrate. The former doesn’t imply the latter.

A great next step would be for Catalist, the SEIU, and other organizations to make their 2008 campaign data publicly available. I won’t hold my breath, of course.