By Dave Diepenbrock

In my last column I said Republicans could learn how to win from Tim Tebow and the Broncos. They have a solid defense and aren't afraid to pull their plays from someone else's playbook. (Peak note: It's a theme that has since been picked up on by other commentators.)

We, too, need to restore something like the 1950's and 60's neighbor-to-neighbor efforts. This isn't a counsel to abandon electronic contact and social networking; we should do that, too – but we may not have the enormous cash required.

David Nickerson of Notre Dame (and others) have studied turnout efforts. The following derives from reports you can find by mining his publications. You'll see that personal contact is the most persuasive way to get “your” voters to actually vote. With volunteers so hard to recruit, it's easy to understand why Democrats often use “paid volunteers.” (But, then, they have that union, millionaire dough.)

These are comments about turnout efforts, and they may not apply to other voter contact efforts. Any errors in emphasis are mine alone. (As an aside, John Sides' excellent review of political advertising – with an emphasis on what works and doesn't – is a valuable read on that campaign element. Part 1 is here; part 2, here).

  1. Quality matters, as do scripting and caller training. Untrained callers/walkers and those who deliver a script by rote are much less effective than well-coached personalized human interaction with the voter being reached.
  2. Efficiency matters. Don't waste caller or walker time. Rather than walking an entire precinct because it's high on your list, select zip plus 4 blocks within given precincts that meet standards of density, partisan registration and performance.
  3. Human interaction works. Email and robo-call turnout efforts aren't greatly useful (despite their low cost). Equally, mass door-to-door literature drops without actually speaking to a householder don't help much. It's actually talking to the voter that works best.
  4. Money matters because turnout is expensive. Costs vary across GOTV mechanisms, and different investigators find different costs per voter turned out, even with similar seeming contact efforts. Here's a sample list of options and costs: leafleting = $32 (not mass delivery; highly targeted by geographic density, voting likelihood and partisan leanings); door-to-door canvassing = $31; direct mail = $67; volunteer calls = $20; good professional calls = $29; augmented professional calls = $18. Turning out 10,000 extra votes means spending $180,000 … or more.
  5. Timing matters. No campaign can reach everyone; target the most favorable voters who may not vote without prompting. A voter who is contacted retains the favorable impact of that contact for perhaps a week or less. The key lesson? Strictly target voters for personal contacts, concentrating on the days before mail-in ballots are received and again before election day.

Tebow wins in the fourth quarter, and turnout is a similar “final minutes of the game” effort. But it takes both a great deal of prior planning (think if it as practice in football terms) and game day execution at a very high level. The Democrats did it here in Colorado; so can we.