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


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.

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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

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

William C. Adams , and Dennis J. Smith . 1980. ‘Effects of Telephone Canvassing on Turnout and Preferences: A Field Experiment’. Public Opinion Quarterly 44(3):389395.

Kevin Arceneaux , and Robin Kolodny . 2009. ‘Educating the Least Informed: Group Endorsements in a Grassroots Campaign’. American Journal of Political Science 53(4):755770.

Ryan D. Enos , Anthony Fowler , and Lynn Vavreck . 2014. ‘Increasing Inequality: The Effect of GOTV Mobilization on the Composition of the Electorate’. The Journal of Politics 76(1):273288.

Donald P. Green , Peter M. Aronow , and Mary C. McGrath . 2013. ‘Field Experiments and the Study of Voter Turnout’. Journal of Elections, Public Opinion & Parties 23(1):2748.

Thomas M. Holbrook , and Scott D. McClurg . 2005. ‘The Mobilization of Core Supporters: Campaigns, Turnout and Electoral Composition in United States Presidential Elections’. American Journal of Political Science 49(4):689703.

Gregory A. Huber , and Kevin Arceneaux . 2007. ‘Identifying the Persuasive Effects of Presidential Advertising’. American Journal of Political Science 51(4):961981.

John E McNulty . 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.

David W. Nickerson , Ryan D. Friedrichs , and David C. King . 2006. ‘Partisan Mobilization Campaigns in the Field: Results from a Statewide Turnout Experiment in Michigan’. Political Research Quarterly 59(1):8597.

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Political Science Research and Methods
  • ISSN: 2049-8470
  • EISSN: 2049-8489
  • URL: /core/journals/political-science-research-and-methods
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Supplementary Materials

Foos and John supplementary material
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