Lessons From Voter Turnout

Spoke with an old friend today, Todd Rogers. Lives in DC now but moving back up here to teach at Harvard, with his wife (who taught at Pacific Rim charter school once upon a time) and kiddo. Here's what the New York Times Magazine wrote about Todd:

There seem to be two types of political operatives in Washington: those who think Rogers is a genius transforming their field and those who have never heard of him.

Todd's been studying behavioral science and voting. What makes us tick. Think of books like Nudge, stuff like that. Todd applies those insights to mobilizing voters (Dems in particular). He loves psychology and numbers.

Rogers, who had just turned 30, was a former college-lacrosse player from the Philadelphia suburbs who earned a joint degree in organizational behavior and psychology in connection with Harvard Business School after performing studies that examined the way individuals managed their queues on services like Netflix. Rogers argued that this type of research — on how time delays alter preferences — could help policy makers shape policy design on issues like carbon taxes, which involve balancing your ideal preferences (watching documentaries, having a smaller carbon footprint) with your actual choices (watching action movies, buying an S.U.V.).

Shortly before Pennsylvania’s April 2008 presidential primary, Rogers scripted a phone call that went out to 19,411 Democratic households in the state. The disembodied call-center voice said it had three questions. Around what time do you expect you will head to the polls on Tuesday? Where do you expect you will be coming from when you head to the polls on Tuesday? What do you think you will be doing before you head out to the polls?

Rogers did not care what voters’ answers were to the questions, only whether they had any. He was testing a psychological concept known as “implementation intentions,” which suggests that people are more likely to perform an action if they have already visualized doing it.

Some of what they've learned:

1. Here's the dumb message: not enough people are voting, so you should. Here's the smart message: lots of other people will be voting, so you should.

2. If you make a GOTV (get out the vote phone call), and you ask the person on the phone -- What time do you think you'll vote, which polling place, and how will you get there -- they become much more likely to actually vote.

3. He told me that "while this is not something we discovered -- some folks at Yale did this one - this next one is very cool." The Yalies found:

a. You research each voter's actual voting history (which is public record; if they showed up to vote).

b. Then send them a letter with both their voting history and their neighbors' voting history, and explain you'll send a similar letter (to them, and their neighbors) after the election.

If you do that, they are much more likely to actually vote.


Todd is just starting a new line of inquiry: how this stuff might be applied to empirical research about teachers and teaching. Stay tuned.