Media Briefings

POLITICAL CAMPAIGNING: New evidence that personal contact with the electorate wins their votes

  • Published Date: February 2014

For many candidates for public office, effective election campaigning may be as simple as saying hello. That is the conclusion of experimental research by Professors Jared Barton, Marco Castillo and Ragan Petrie, published in the February 2014 issue of the Economic Journal.

Their study finds that speaking with voters face-to-face is very persuasive regardless of whether the campaign literature that candidates leave is about them or a reminder of how to vote on Election Day. But surprisingly, a ‘get-out-the-vote’ message actually reduces voter turnout.

The researchers conducted a novel experiment in a candidate’s campaign for county office in the 2010 US general election. The candidate varied at random whether he spoke with the voters face-to-face or just left a short piece of campaign literature at the voter’s front door. There was also random variation in whether the literature was about the campaign itself or a reminder to vote on Election Day.

When the candidate visited voters, all he said was ‘Hello, my name is “John Doe”. How are you? I’m running for County Board, and I’m here today to ask if you have any questions about my campaign or ideas for our community, and to ask for your vote this Election Day.’

According to a survey the researchers conducted a week after the election, voters contacted face-to-face were 21 percentage points more likely to vote for the candidate after speaking with him for fewer than 10 seconds, compared with those left alone. Voters who only received the literature were also a little more likely to vote for the candidate, but not significantly so.

The researchers divided the voters by their political affiliation, and found that the campaign had almost no effect on voters in the candidate’s party, but it did increase support for the candidate among independent voters by almost 50 percentage points.

Jared Barton notes:

‘The campaign made unaffiliated voters as supportive as the candidate’s own-party voters. Not bad for a couple of seconds.’

There were no differences in whom the voters supported across the different types of literature, indicating that it was the visit and not the literature that changed voters’ minds.

But the authors know that people read the pamphlets because voters that received the ‘get-out-the-vote’ messages were about 10% less likely to go out to vote. Because the message included detailed instructions for pre-Election Day voting, it may have made voting seem too complicated to some voters.

Ragan Petrie comments:

‘Our results suggest that campaigning for many of these smaller elections is really about getting some measure of the candidate and his character through his actions – what economists call “costly signalling”.’

While the experiment took place in a local election, the result may also inform campaigning at higher levels as well. Previous studies have looked at how presidential candidates allocate their visits to different states as a key campaign resource.

Marco Castillo adds:

‘Given the value of a presidential candidate’s time in so many activities, there must be something important about seeing the candidate in person for them to go from state to state.’


Notes for editors: ‘What Persuades Voters? A Field Experiment on Political Campaigning’ by Jared Barton, Marco Castillo and Ragan Petrie is published in the February 2014 issue of the Economic Journal.

Jared Barton is at CSU Channel Islands. Marco Castillo and Ragan Petrie are at George Mason University.

For further information: contact Jared Barton on +1-301-219-7326 (email:; Marco Castillo via email:; Ragan Petrie via email:; or Romesh Vaitilingam on +44-7768-661095 (email:; Twitter: @econromesh).