The Atlantic

Most Campaign Outreach Has Zero Effect on Voters

A new paper finds that direct mail, door-to-door canvassing, and television ads almost never change people’s minds. What does this mean for American democracy?
Source: Brian Snyder / Reuters

$6.4 billion. That’s how much candidates, political parties, and interest groups spent on federal elections in 2016, according to the Open Secrets project at the Center for Responsive Politics. Especially in competitive races, huge amounts of money are invested in reaching voters through ads, phone banks, direct mail, and canvassing. Ostensibly, the goal is to persuade people to vote for a particular candidate.

A new paper by two California political scientists finds that the total effect of these efforts is zero, meaning that they have no impact on how voters vote. David Broockman, a Stanford University assistant professor, and Joshua Kalla, a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, analyzed data from 49 field experiments—state, local, and federal campaigns that let political scientists access their data to evaluate their methods. For every flyer stuck in a mailbox, every door knocked by an earnest volunteer, and every candidate message left on an answering

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