I’ve been kicking around the local political scene out here in the burbs for decades.  Come election time we mobilize our less than intimidating forces and dutifully mount campaigns to defeat the opposition.  Trouble is, we have little idea which of our electioneering efforts are effective.  Tactically opportunistic, we’re inclined to go off in many different directions and assume that each additional effort provides some marginal benefit.  As an election grows closer, here’s what we do.

The lawn sign has long been a staple of suburban electioneering.  Stuck into the ground it announces to passersby that:  1. There is an election coming up; and 2. That neighbors of yours are willing to disclose their preferences.  The goal is to place signs along busy roadways and intersections so as to maximize their impact.  There is also the belief that large numbers of signs create a favorable climate and a sense of momentum for your candidate.  Signs are somewhat problematic, however, insofar as they do topple over and, more commonly, are stolen by the opposition.  Billboards and wall posters are much like lawn signs, except that they are notably larger and considerably costlier.  Key locations must be reserved for obvious reasons, including that of denying them to the opposition.

Both sides flood the mails with fliers during the period before election day.  Candidates’ credentials and accomplishments are highlighted and nasty, overblown accusations are hurled against opponents.  The problem here is that few people actually read this stuff or accept the charges at face value.  Moreover, because it is regarded as a subspecies of junk mail, it is widely resented, and from all indications, immediately tossed away.  Television ads represent a far more ambitious and costlier approach.  They tend, on the local level at least, to be consistently amateurish and shrill, and are no doubt regarded with the same indifference and skepticism as product commercials.

At the grass roots, there’s nothing more basic than dropping off campaign literature at the doors of individual homeowners.  Block by block, up and down stairs leading to the front door, our operatives slip this material under doormats (to prevent them from being blown away).  They are, however, usually neutralized by the fact that the opposition often does likewise.  No doubt homeowners regard these as a nuisance, unwanted shreds of paper they must pick up and dispose of.  Of far greater effectiveness is a personal appearance in the neighborhood by the candidate for a “walk around”.  Knocking on doors and encountering people on the street, he or she can “press the flesh”, and engage directly with voters.  Everyone is usually friendly, promises support on election day, but of course there are no guarantees.  This face-to-face ritual bolsters candidate confidence, but is extremely time consuming.  And because people are often not home it is unlikely that many voters can be brought into the fold in this manner.

Recently the “robo” call has come into play.  These devices allow a recorded message to be dispatched to limitless numbers of home phones.  People may pick up and listen to the first such call, but when others arrive, which they always do, most no longer pay attention.  More effective are calls from prominent politicians endorsing our candidates.  Even local elections may feature messages from the President of the United States our U.S. Senators or the Governor.  How flattering.  Imagine getting a call from such luminaries.  How much more effective will this technique be when these devices improve to the point that the caller can address you by name and inquire about the well-being of family members!  Could be a game changer.

So, there you have it.  Not knowing what really works leads campaign managers to try everything.  That’s good for democracy, plus a welcome boost to local economies.

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