Skip to main content Accessibility help

Parties are No Civic Charities: Voter Contact and the Changing Partisan Composition of the Electorate*

  • Florian Foos and Peter John


In contrast to non-partisan Get Out the Vote (GOTV) campaigns, political parties do not aim to increase turnout across the board. Instead, their principal goal is to affect the outcome of an election in their favor. To find out how they realize this aim, we carried out a randomized field experiment to evaluate the effect of campaign visits and leafleting by Conservative Party canvassers on turnout in a marginal English Parliamentary constituency during the 2014 European and Local Elections. Commonly-used campaign interventions, leaflets and door-knocks, changed the composition of the electorate in favor of the Conservative Party, but did not increase turnout overall. Supporters of rival parties, particularly Labour self-identifiers, were significantly less likely to mobilize in response to Conservative campaign contact than Conservative supporters. In contrast to the non-partisan GOTV literature, we show that impersonal campaign leaflets were as effective in shaping the local electorate in the Conservative’s favor as personal visits. The common practice of contacting all constituents irrespective of their party preferences was effective as a campaign tactic, but had no civic benefits in the aggregate.



Hide All

Florian Foos, Postdoctoral Researcher Department of Political Science, University of Zurich, Affolternstrasse 56, 8050 Zurich ( Peter John, Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, Department of Political Science, University College London, The Rubin Building, 29/31 Tavistock Square, London WC1H 9QU ( The authors are very grateful to Jacob Rees-Mogg MP for agreeing to host the study in North East Somerset, and to the constituency workers and canvassers for delivering the intervention and collecting the data so efficiently. The article was first presented at the Midwest Political Science Association Conference, Chicago, April 2015, Panel 23-6 ‘What Works Best? Field Experiments Comparing Mobilization Tactics.’ We thank the participants, in particular the discussant, Lisa Bryant, for their comments. The authors also thank Don Green for his valuable comments on an earlier draft of the paper and Alex Coppock for advice on the statistical analysis. The authors are also grateful to three anonymous reviewers and the editor for their close attention to the manuscript. To view supplementary material for this article, please visit



Hide All
Adams, William C., and Smith, Dennis J.. 1980. ‘Effects of Telephone Canvassing on Turnout and Preferences: A Field Experiment’. Public Opinion Quarterly 44(3):389395.
Arceneaux, Kevin. 2007. ‘I’m Asking for Your Support: The Effects of Personally Delivered Campaign Messages on Voting Decisions and Opinion Formation’. Quarterly Journal of Political Science 1:4365.
Arceneaux, Kevin, and Kolodny, Robin. 2009. ‘Educating the Least Informed: Group Endorsements in a Grassroots Campaign’. American Journal of Political Science 53(4):755770.
Bailey, Michael A., Daniel J. Hopkins, and Todd Rogers. 2016. “Unresponsive and Unpersuaded: The Unintended Consequences of a Voter Persuasion Effort.” Political Behavior 38(3):713746. Accessed 5 November 2016.
Barton, Jared, Castillo, Marco, and Petrie, Ragan. 2014. ‘What Persuades Voters? A Field Experiment on Political Campaigning’. The Economic Journal 124(574):293326.
Berelson, Bernard, Lazarsfeld, Paul Felix, and McPhee, William N.. 1954. Voting: A Study of Opinion Formation in a Presidential Campaign. Midway reprint ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Coppock, Alexander. 2015. ‘12 Things You Need to Know About Multiple Comparisons’. EGAP. Available at, accessed 5 November 2016.
Dale, Allison, and Strauss, Aaron. 2009. ‘Don’t Forget to Vote: Text Message Reminders as a Mobilization Tool’. American Journal of Political Science 53(4):787804.
Doherty, David, and Adler, E. Scott. 2014. ‘The Persuasive Effects of Partisan Campaign Mailers’. Political Research Quarterly 59:203210.
Enos, Ryan D., Fowler, Anthony, and Vavreck, Lynn. 2014. ‘Increasing Inequality: The Effect of GOTV Mobilization on the Composition of the Electorate’. The Journal of Politics 76(1):273288.
Festinger, Leon. 1957. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson.
Fiorina, Morris P. 1976. ‘The Voting Decision: Instrumental and Expressive Aspects’. The Journal of Politics 38:390413.
Foos, Florian. 2015. ‘Bringing the Party Back in: Mobilization and Persuasion in Constituency Election Campaigns’. PhD Thesis, University of Oxford.
Foos, Florian, and de Rooij, Eline A.. 2016. ‘The Role of Partisan Cues in Voter Mobilization Campaigns: Evidence from a Randomized Field Experiment’. Working Paper.
Gerber, Alan. 2004. ‘Does Campaign Spending Work?: Field Experiments Provide Evidence and Suggest New Theory’. American Behavioral Scientist 47(5):541574.
Gerber, Alan, Green, Donald, and Larimer, Christopher. 2008. ‘Social Pressure and Voter Turnout: Evidence from a Large-Scale Field Experiment’. American Political Science Review 102(1):3348.
Green, Donald P. 2004. ‘Results from a Partisan Phone and Canvassing Mobilization Campaign in Pennsylvania Primary Election’. Institution for Social and Policy Studies, Yale University. Available at
Green, Donald P., and Gerber, Alan S.. 2008. Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout, 2nd ed. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
Green, Donald P., Aronow, Peter M., and McGrath, Mary C.. 2013. ‘Field Experiments and the Study of Voter Turnout’. Journal of Elections, Public Opinion & Parties 23(1):2748.
Hillygus, Sunshine D., and Shields, Todd G.. 2008. The Persuadable Voter: Wedge Issues in Presidential Campaigns. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Hirschman, Albert O. 1970. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Holbrook, Thomas M., and McClurg, Scott D.. 2005. ‘The Mobilization of Core Supporters: Campaigns, Turnout and Electoral Composition in United States Presidential Elections’. American Journal of Political Science 49(4):689703.
Huber, Gregory A., and Arceneaux, Kevin. 2007. ‘Identifying the Persuasive Effects of Presidential Advertising’. American Journal of Political Science 51(4):961981.
Kendall, Chad, Tomasso Nannicini, and Francesco Trebbi (2014). How do voters respond to information? Evidence from a randomized campaign. The American Economic Review 105(1):322353.
Lazarsfeld, Paul Felix, Berelson, Bernard, and Gaudet, Hazel. 1948. The Peoples Choice: How the Voter Makes Up his Mind in a Presidential Campaign . New York: Columbia University Press.
Lupia, Arthur, and McCubbins, Mathew D.. 1998. The Democratic Dilemma: Can Citizens Learn What they Need to Know? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
McNulty, John E. 2005. ‘Phone-Based GOTV – What’s on the Line? Field Experiments With Varied Partisan Components, 2002-2003’. The Science of Voter Mobilization. Special Editors: Donald P. Green and Alan S. Gerber’. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 601:4165.
Nickerson, David W. 2005. ‘Partisan Mobilization Using Volunteer Phone Banks and Door Hangers’. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 601(1):1027.
Nickerson, David W. 2006. ‘Forget Me Not? The Importance of Timing in Voter Mobilization’. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. August 31-September 2 2006, Pennsylvania Convention Center, Philadelphia, PA.
Nickerson, David W. 2007. ‘Quality is Job One: Volunteer and Professional Phone Calls’. American Journal of Political Science 51(2):269282.
Nickerson, David W., Friedrichs, Ryan D., and King, David C.. 2006. ‘Partisan Mobilization Campaigns in the Field: Results from a Statewide Turnout Experiment in Michigan’. Political Research Quarterly 59(1):8597.
Nyhan, Brendan, and Reifler, Jason. 2010. ‘When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions’. Political Behavior 32:303330.
Pons, Vincent. 2014. ‘The Determinants of Political Behavior : Evidence from Three Randomized Field Experiments’. PhD Thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Pons, Vincent. 2016. Will a Five-Minute Discussion Change Your Mind? Harvard Business School Working Paper 16-079:
Pons, Vincent, and Liegey, Guillaume. 2016. ‘Increasing the Electoral Participation of Immigrants. Experimental Evidence from France’. Harvard Business School Working Paper 16-094. Available at
Ramiro, Luis, Morales, Laura, and Jimenez-Buedo, Maria. 2012. ‘The Effects of Party Mobilization on Electoral Results. An Experimental Study of the 2011 Spanish Local Elections’. Paper prepared for the IPSA conference, July.
Rogers, Todd, Fox, Craig R., and Gerber, Alan S.. 2012. ‘Rethinking Why People Vote: Voting as Dynamic Social Expression’. In Shafir Eldar (ed.). The Behavioral Foundations of Policy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Shaw, Daron R., Green, Donald P., Gimpel, James G., and Gerber, Alan S.. 2012. ‘Do Robotic Calls from Credible Sources Influence Voter Turnout or Vote Choice? Evidence from a Randomized Field Experiment’. Journal of Political Marketing 11:231245.
Shi, Ying. 2015. ‘Cross-Cutting Messages and Voter Turnout: Evidence from a Same-Sex Marriage Amendment’. Political Communication (forthcoming) 10.1080/10584609.2015.2015.1076091.
Zaller, John. 1992. The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO
Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Foos and John Dataset

Supplementary materials

Foos and John supplementary material
Foos and John supplementary material 1

 PDF (195 KB)
195 KB

Parties are No Civic Charities: Voter Contact and the Changing Partisan Composition of the Electorate*

  • Florian Foos and Peter John


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.