ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

How much of this campaign jousting makes people come out to vote or stay home? Well, over the past decade or so, researchers have done controlled experiments on voters. And as NPR's Alix Spiegel reports, the experiments are slowly changing how political professionals think about getting out the vote.

ALIX SPIEGEL, BYLINE: In the coming months, many Americans will get a call from a political campaign, something along the lines of...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hi. I'm calling to remind you to vote on Tuesday, April 22. Do you plan to vote on Tuesday?

SPIEGEL: Calls like this have been a staple of political campaigns for decades. But back in April of 2008, a few days before the presidential primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, thousands of Pennsylvania voters got a version of this call with a twist: The potential voters were asked a series of carefully constructed questions.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: About what time do you expect you'll head to the polls on Tuesday? What do you think you'll be doing before you head to the polls that day? And where do you expect you'll be coming from when you head to the polls?

SPIEGEL: These questions were designed by Harvard professor Todd Rogers. Among other things, Rogers is a behavioral psychologist, and he chose those questions for a reason.

TODD ROGERS: We borrowed that from cognitive psychology, thinking through the actual moment when you will do something. Thinking through that actually makes it more likely that the behavior will pop into your mind at the appropriate time.

SPIEGEL: And actually get you to, for example, go out and vote. Now, to make sure this really worked in real life, Rogers did something that hasn't been done much in politics: He did a randomized controlled study. That is, he randomly divided the state of Pennsylvania into different groups: Thousands got the call I just explained, thousands got a standard get-out-the-vote call without the questions, and thousands got no call at all. And what Rogers found was that those questions, they really did work.

ROGERS: Just asking those three simple planning questions doubled the impact of the calls.

SPIEGEL: People who were asked the questions were twice as likely to vote as people who were not.

ROGERS: I was very pleasantly surprised by how effective it appeared to be.

SPIEGEL: In 2008, when Rogers did that research, he was working for a newly established organization called the Analyst Institute. The Analyst Institute is a private group of researchers that works only for Democratic campaigns. The Obama campaign is a client. And the president of the institute, Jennifer Green, told me that traditionally, when people wanted to understand what a voter thought, they way they did it was to ask the voter questions. You either put them in a focus group or you polled them on the phone.

And for Jennifer Green, that's no way to understand a voter. You have to do controlled experiments, she says, because voters themselves, they often don't know what moves them. Most of us, she says, don't.

JENNIFER GREEN: If I showed you a quacking duck, and I said: Hey, do you think this would make you more likely to buy this insurance? You would say no. We want to portray ourselves as people using information to make informed decisions. We want to justify our beliefs. And the way that we actually interact in the world is not like that. The things that make an impression on us or change our minds, may be a particular image, it may be a quacking duck. And we only figure that out by testing. Asking people is not the same as testing.

SPIEGEL: Now, Green couldn't talk very specifically about the experiments that the Analyst Institute has done. It's proprietary research paid for by their clients. So to find out more about what randomized controlled experiments have to tell us about what gets voters to vote, I went to Columbia University and talked to this guy.

DONALD GREEN: I'm Donald Green or Don Green. I'm professor of political science here at Columbia University.

SPIEGEL: Don Green and his collaborator, Alan Gerber, were actually the people who got all this experimentation in politics started in the first place. About 14 years ago, during the midterm elections, they decided to do a series of randomized experiments in Connecticut which sought to answer the following questions:

GREEN: What works to produce votes? What kinds of campaign tactics, what kinds of campaign messages, what kinds of campaign messengers cause people to get up and cast votes on Election Day or change their minds about candidates?

SPIEGEL: And what they discovered from this kind of experimentation was that a lot of the conventional wisdom that dominates current political campaigns, it's just wrong. Exhibit A is robocalls by celebrities. Campaigns spend a fortune on these calls because they think that they work. And to be fair, social psychological theory suggest that they should work too.

When a well-liked person, say, Oprah, endorses a candidate, it should make a difference. But when Gerber and Green did a series of randomized experiments testing the celebrity robocalls, that's not what they found.

GREEN: The robocall had no detectable effect whatsoever. We're batting, basically, a perfect zero for all these robocall celebrity endorsements.

SPIEGEL: Since those first experiments in 1998, there have been dozens more. It's been discovered that when you tell potential voters that lots of people are going to the polls, the social pressure makes them more likely to go the polls too. It's been discovered that when you indicate to people that you are watching them by mailing them records that show how often they and their neighbors have voted, that really gets them to the polls.

GREEN: It was about eight percentage points. It was a - it was an enormous effect.

SPIEGEL: And though at first campaign professionals mostly dismissed this work, over time it's been slowly gaining acceptance among both Democrats and Republicans. And Todd Rogers, the Harvard professor who's now on the board of the Analyst Institute, says these insights have already made a difference in many of the campaigns the institute works for.

ROGERS: I think we've doubled or tripled the impact per dollar spent. Just in the last five or six years, we've made a ton of progress on how to use psychology in helping people vote.

SPIEGEL: Now, the potential impact of this work needs to be put in the proper perspective. The reality is elections are mostly decided by some combination of macro forces, like the economy and war, and, you know, political personalities. But as Rogers points out, a good get-out-the-vote ground game, it can make a difference.

ROGERS: We're talking about increasing the chances of win on the margin during close races and there are a lot of races that are on the margins.

SPIEGEL: The coming contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney might actually be one of those races.

Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.

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