The dismal science of voter turnout

What works best for getting out the vote? An economist says knocking on doors. Who will knock on the most doors this year? Guess.

By Andrew Leonard

Published November 3, 2008 9:25PM (EST)

Princeton economist Alan B. Krueger has a post up on the New York Times Economix blog looking at "Economics and the Science of Voter Turnout." He cited a previous column he had written summarizing the research conclusions of Yale political scientists Donald P. Green and Alan S. Gerber in their book, "Get Out the Vote!"

For a decade the duo has used controlled experiments conducted as part of actual election campaigns to learn how leafleting, robocalls, TV ads and other strategies affect voter turnout.

They concluded that it is expensive to increase voter turnout. Door-to-door canvassing, though expensive, seemed to yield the most votes per dollar spent. TV ads did not seem very effective.

Anecdotal accounts from the campaign trail indicate that the Obama campaign has devoted unprecedented resources and exploited enormous volunteer labor in door-to-door canvassing. Less anecdotally, there's this report published on Friday from the Washington Post's Matthew Mosk:

Sen. John McCain and the Republican National Committee will unleash a barrage of spending on television advertising that will allow him to keep pace with Sen. Barack Obama's ad blitz during the campaign's final days, but the expenditures will impact McCain's get-out-the-vote efforts, according to Republican strategists....

The decision to finance a final advertising push is forcing McCain to curtail spending on Election Day ground forces to help usher his supporters to the polls... The vaunted, 72-hour plan that President Bush used to mobilize voters in 2000 and 2004 has been scaled back for McCain. He has spent half as much as Obama on staffing and has opened far fewer field offices. This week, a number of veteran GOP operatives who orchestrate door-to-door efforts to get voters to the polls were told they should not expect to receive plane tickets, rental cars or hotel rooms from the campaign.

Krueger notes that there is now an InTrade prediction market in voter turnout, and traders are betting "that more than 60 percent of the voting-age population will vote, which is higher than that in any presidential election since 1968."

If door-to-door canvassing gets you your best dollar-value, and the Obama campaign is investing more resources into knocking on doors, and voter turnout reaches a high not seen in 40 years, well, who do you think has the advantage?

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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