Testing Overall and Synergistic Campaign Effects in a Partisan Statewide Election

AuthorDaron Shaw,Christopher Blunt,Brent Seaborn
Published date01 June 2018
Date01 June 2018
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2018, Vol. 71(2) 361 –379
© 2017 University of Utah
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912917738577
Since the late 1990s, political science research has shed
considerable light on the influence of common modes of
campaign communication—mail, telephones, and in-per-
son contacting—on U.S. voters and elections. But the
effects of the dominant modes—broadcast and online
advertising—as well as the synergistic and overall effects
of electioneering, remain a matter of dispute. The main
reason for this is straightforward: American campaigns
are noisy, and it is difficult to isolate the independent
impact of singular forms of outreach. More generally,
calculating the sum of these impacts and offering esti-
mates of the interactive and total effects of the campaign
is close to impossible.
Still, the allure of learning more about this essential
element of democratic functioning is compelling. As
many have observed, campaigns are the connective tissue
between voters and elected officials (Campbell 2008).
Campaigns are where candidates convey promises and
commitments that bind them to specific policy acts as
public officials. They establish the basis for accountabil-
ity and, in no minor way, democracy.
Beyond their importance for democratic theory, we are
also fascinated with campaigns because of the time, energy,
and money they consume. Are they worth the effort we
invest in them? Indeed, the disbelieving reaction of practi-
tioners and pundits to findings of “minimal effects” on the
part of some campaign scholars is no doubt caused by the
assumption that smart, rational people could not possibly
spend so much for so negligible an effect.
Against this backdrop, we want to know if campaigns
successfully persuade and mobilize voters. To engage this
question, the primary goals of this study are (1) to gauge
the distinct and synergistic effects of different forms of
campaigning, as designed and executed by real-life prac-
titioners and (2) to estimate the cumulative effects of a
campaign. To attain these goals, we rely on a field experi-
ment testing the simultaneous effects of several distinct
forms of campaign communication in a statewide, parti-
san campaign for governor of Texas.1
Theorizing about Campaign Effects
When considering the impact of electioneering, we distin-
guish between “modes” of outreach. Different campaign
modes vary on two salient dimensions: frequency and tar-
geting precision. Frequency refers to the number of times
738577PRQXXX10.1177/1065912917738577Political Research QuarterlyShaw et al.
1University of Texas at Austin, USA
2Overbrook Research, Leslie, MI, USA
3TargetPoint Consulting, Alexandria, VA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Daron Shaw, Government Department, University of Texas at Austin,
1 University Station A1800, Austin, TX 78712, USA.
Email: dshaw@austin.utexas.edu
Testing Overall and Synergistic
Campaign Effects in a Partisan
Statewide Election
Daron Shaw1, Christopher Blunt2, and Brent Seaborn3
Although studies based on field experiments and large-N surveys have enhanced our understanding of how campaigns
affect U.S. elections, few of these projects have (1) considered the synergistic effects of distinct aspects of the campaign,
(2) focused on statewide, partisan elections, or (3) considered the durability of any estimated campaign effects. We
rely on a massive field experiment from the 2014 Texas gubernatorial campaign to assess the individual, synergistic,
and collective impact of a variety of outreach modes on the electorate. The data demonstrate some durable synergistic
and overall campaign effects on voters’ attitudes toward the sponsoring candidate, with lesser effects on turnout. In
addition, while the results indicate that television is rightly considered the most effective mover of voters, radio and
Internet advertising also have notable effects and may, in fact, deliver a better return on investment.
campaigns, elections, field experiments, mobilization, persuasion
362 Political Research Quarterly 71(2)
that an individual voter is exposed to a campaign message.
Targeting precision refers to the match between the cam-
paign message and the attitudes of individual voters.
Campaign effects are most likely when receptive voters
are repeatedly exposed to persuasive messages.
To the chagrin of practitioners, campaign modes that
offer the greatest potential with respect to frequency and
repetition (television and radio) are also broadcast to
many unreceptive voters. Conversely, campaign modes
that offer the greatest potential for precise and personal
targeting (digital, mail, phones, and face-to-face) are the
most easily discarded, blocked, or refused by voters. This
conundrum is borne out by empirical analyses, which
show substantial but temporary effects for television
advertising (Gerber et al. 2010) and small effects for digi-
tal, mail, and phones (Gerber and Green 2004; Huber and
Arceneaux 2007).
Additional leverage can be gained on the question of
aggregate campaign effects by considering voter (or
“receiver”) characteristics. Previous studies demon-
strate that the ability of campaigns to persuade is sub-
stantially conditioned by the attitudinal predispositions
of the audience. Most notably, political awareness
increases the likelihood of “reception” (Zaller 1992),
but it also leads to greater stores of information and
thus lessens the likelihood that voters will “yield” to
additional information. High intensity election cam-
paigns experienced by low awareness voters are there-
fore often regarded as the most likely to produce an
impact (e.g., Ridout and Franz 2011).2
Besides political awareness, partisanship should
moderate how voters react to campaign information.
Independents, who lack a partisan filter that causes
them to resist messages coming from certain sources,
should be most receptive to this information. Partisans,
on the contrary, should be moved by messages coming
from their side, but will resist information coming from
the other side.3
But while it is important to understand that campaign-
ing has distinct forms and that voters come with various
levels of political interest and attachment to the parties, it
is equally important to acknowledge that both campaigns
and voters are evolving. Campaigns have gotten better at
identifying voters who are relatively more receptive to
specific issue appeals (through large-N surveys and data
analytics performed on registered voter lists) while cam-
paign modes have been refined and expanded to improve
their reach (through the proliferation of Internet access,
as well as through the prevalence of cable and Internet
television and satellite radio). Quite simply, campaigns
have improved tactically. This improvement has been
most apparent since the 2000 election, just as voters have
polarized in their views of the two major parties (e.g.,
Iyengar and Westwood 2015).
These twin developments are consequential for our
understanding of campaign effects. For example, in a
race with a polarized electorate and precise targeting,
we would expect significant effects through the activa-
tion or mobilization of partisans. We suspect that most
statewide partisan elections of today—presidential,
gubernatorial, and U.S. senate races—fall into this cat-
egory. But many other election contests fall outside this
category. For instance, some lower profile statewide
races and many local elections feature a polarized envi-
ronment but campaigning with less reach or with less
precise targeting; these should result in less substantial
mobilization. Conversely, in a less polarized environ-
ment with wide-spread yet targeted electioneering—for
example, some mayoral or city council elections—cam-
paigns should have significant persuasive effects on
what is likely to be a relatively independent, open-
minded electorate.
Research Expectations for the Texas Study
Assuming the posited relationship between reach, target-
ing precision, and voter receptivity, we have several
attendant expectations. First, campaigning ought to affect
vote choice. The theoretical literature discussed earlier
and most empirical studies (e.g., Hillygus and Jackman
2003; Shaw 2006) suggest that campaigns can influence
attitudes toward the candidates, so our focus is on con-
firming this conventional wisdom.
Second, campaigning should also affect turnout.
Unlike studies of campaign persuasion, many turnout
studies suggest that effects are small or nonexistent (e.g.,
Krasno and Green 2008). But recent research on aggre-
gate campaigning and turnout is more positive (Issenberg
2012) and one study of battleground states in the 2012
presidential election estimated a mobilization effect of
between 7 and 8 points (Enos and Fowler 2016).
Furthermore, there is also the specter of increased polar-
ization, which suggests mobilization is perhaps the most
likely campaign effect. Consequently, we focus here on
adding something new to a rather fulsome debate.
Our third (but perhaps most important) expectation is
that campaigns have synergistic effects on voters. The
notion that campaign effects are synergistic has only
occasionally been tested, with little supportive evidence
being proffered (Cardy 2005; Fieldhouse et al. 2013;
Gerber and Green 2004). But these tests have largely
been incidental to the studies, and they have focused on
the interactive effects between direct mail and paid phone
calls. We think the “reach versus targeting precision”
conundrum makes it probable that campaigns use an “all
of the above” approach. More to the point, we think the
combination of different forms of outreach is likely to
affect voters.

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