The social science behind Ted Cruz’s notice of “voter violation”

I wrote here about the use by Ted Cruz’s campaign in Iowa of a mailer to potential caucus-goers that was labeled: “ELECTION ALERT,” “VOTER VIOLATION,” “PUBLIC RECORD,” and “FURTHER ACTION NEEDED.” It told recipients:

You are receiving this election notice because of low expected voter turnout in your area. Your individual voting history as well as your neighbors’ are public record. Their scores are published below, and many of them will see your score as well. CAUCUS ON MONDAY TO IMPROVE YOUR SCORE and please encourage your neighbors to caucus as well. A follow-up notice may be issued following Monday’s caucuses.

The notice also listed the names of some of the recipient’s neighbors.

One of our long-time readers, a distinguished professor of politics, tells me that Cruz’s tactic has a basis in political science research. That basis can be found in this article, which describes an experiment in the use of “shaming” to get people to the polls.

The nature of the experiment, i.e., the method used to “shame” subjects into voting, is described at page 38. The results showed that the use of a mailer that applies social pressure by invoking one’s neighbors increased turnout significantly. It was more effective than phone calls and rivaled door-to-door canvassing. And the mailer is far less expensive than these other approaches.

The approach used by Team Cruz seems to reflect a familiarity with the experiment in question. Given the sophistication of the campaign, this shouldn’t be surprising.

I was probably wrong, therefore, to suggest that the mailing might well prove counterproductive in the context of the Iowa race. Cruz used a tactic that was based on social science research. He also exceeded expectations at the caucuses, though this doesn’t necessarily mean the mailing helped him.

These facts don’t diminish my disapproval of Cruz’s “shaming” mailing, though. I find it obnoxious and creepy.

It’s possible, moreover, that it will prove counterproductive in the long run. Cruz now himself in a controversy over whether his campaign engaged in dirty tactics to undermine Ben Carson. His opponents, especially Donald Trump, want to push the narrative that Cruz stole the Iowa election (which I think is ridiculous) and that, more generally, Cruz is a sleazy operator who (as Marco Rubio said today) “will say anything and do anything” to win an election.

If this narrative takes hold, it will hurt Cruz. No candidate wants such an image. And Cruz, who is running as the principled conservative in the race (and who demonstrated a commitment to principle when it came to ethanol), can ill afford it.

Cruz is also running as the protector of liberty and the enemy of intrusion into our privacy. I don’t think a VOTER VIOLATION notice like the one his campaign used in Iowa reinforces that pitch.

I hope the Cruz campaign will abandon this tactic.