New Research: Voters Listen, and Reframing Works

June 20, 2013
By Doug Gavel, Harvard Kennedy School Communications

Political campaign messaging can affect an election outcome -- even when it's low-tech, inexpensive and competing with many other messages being projected to voters. That is the conclusion of a new Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Working Paper co-authored by Todd Rogers, assistant professor of public policy.

Rogers and his co-author David Nickerson of the University of Notre Dame analyzed a contentious 2008 Oregon U.S. Senate race in which two independent organizations sought to correct a commonly held misperception that the incumbent candidate, Gordon Smith, was pro-choice. The two organizations, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon and NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon, used mail and phone calls to outreach directly to voters with the intent of convincing them that the incumbent was not pro-choice, and hopefully to sway their votes toward his challenger.

The authors conclude that the messaging worked -- as the challenger, Jeff Merkley, defeated Smith in a very close race.

"Among the citizens identified in 2008 as being pro-choice...68% in the treatment group were able to correctly identify Smith as pro-life," they write. "That is, the treatment improved factual knowledge about the policy position of the incumbent by 16 percentage points relative to the comparable control group. This difference is not only statistically significant, but also represents a full third of the 48% of citizens who were misinformed."

Rogers and Nickerson argue their research could have implications for future political campaigns.

"Our findings speak to the debate on whether campaigns matter...and highlight a limitation of analyses of election outcomes that rely principally on economic performance," they write. "Since this election was close – with a win margin of less than three percentage points – micro-targeted, single-issue focused communication strategies like the one we studied could affect election outcomes. Thus, our experiment provides evidence that campaign tactics can matter when macro-level forces create close elections."

Todd Rogers, assistant professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, is a behavioral scientist who tries to understand and influence socially consequential problems. His research attempts to bridge the gap between intention and action. Some topics he has studied include the cognitive and social factors that influence election participation and how time-inconsistent preferences can be leveraged to increase support for future-minded policies and choices.

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Todd Rogers

Todd Rogers, assistant professor of public policy

"Our findings speak to the debate on whether campaigns matter...and highlight a limitation of analyses of election outcomes that rely principally on economic performance," the authors write.