Here’s an idea that seems far fetched: political campaigns should go paperless. Why?
During the endless drag that is election season, our ads, billboards, yard signs and commercials all hound the same repeated message across an endless number of nameless faces. Voting for these individuals is important, but like taxes, election season is one that is met with confusion, trepidation and the yearning for it to be all over.
Practically speaking, the notion of making political campaigns go paperless is highly unrealistic. If the Supreme Court ruled that donating money was a form of free speech, then the law must also suppose printing one’s face on ground-up tree pulp is also self-expression.
But is this method of campaigning practical? Most people look upon these with mild annoyance before being thrown away. Whatever detailed platforms or policies that may be described are wholly ignored. And when a mailbox is stuffed with these fliers on a daily basis, repetition does not always equal success. Some candidates even go so far as to send magnets with their faces on them. No, that is not an exaggeration.
Taking a peruse across various political action websites, most encourage the use of mailed campaigns, also referred to as “direct mail.” They highlight the name, face and overall brand recognition of a candidate. While they claim to be effective, there’s an element of smoke and mirrors to their argument.
It goes without saying that most candidates will not surrender any logistical information to the public. The number of advertisements, flyers, door knockers and phone bankers is left illusive and often overlooked by the time Election Day rolls around.
While assessing the effectiveness of these campaign strategies may be dubious, it is not impossible. A 2017 report by political scientist duo, David Brookman and Joshua Kalla, managed to obtain such data. Their results were surprising.
Here’s a bit of background on campaign spending. The money spent on political campaigns is meant to target a specific demographic: the undecided voter. There is this mythic belief that moderate conservatives, liberals and those affiliated with a third party can be persuaded with the right message or candidate.
Despite the political polarization that the media and internet likes to heighten, many people fall within the margins of moderation. To campaign coordinators, this population appears as a gold mine for investing towards their prospective candidate.
However, the findings of Brookman and Kalla argue that these tactics have little effectiveness. Analyzing data from 49 field experiments, from local, state and federal elections, the results found little effect at swaying voters’ opinions. Everything from flyers, direct mail, door knockers and canvassers, their estimate was a mere one out of 800 people managed to be persuaded.
That does not say that all forms of campaigning are ineffective. There is some nuance to the argument depending on a candidate’s positions, their media coverage and how strong their supporter base is.
Yet, the political machine behind election season spends billions on the very tactics that are now being questioned. According to the Open Secrets Project at the Center for Responsive Politics, 6.4 billion was spent in 2016 by interest groups, ads, phone banking and of course direct mail. It’s worth noting that this number accounted just for federal elections.
If these tactics are ineffective, what are politicians to do?
Some might jump to the conclusion that politics should go digital, as a plethora of industries ditch traditional methods in favor of tech-savvy counterparts. Yet, this recent push has been met with healthy skepticism.
Digitizing democracy makes it more susceptible to inaccuracies, whether they be accidental or purposeful. As voting systems shift away from paper to electronic methods, it has been met with mixed results. Looking over at you, Iowa.
Beyond algorithmic screw-ups, the very real threat of foreign election interference hangs over the horizon as November nears.
One of the clear advantages of using direct mail campaigns is the connotation of paper. It has a certain exactness, a trustworthy feel that the loft TV ads or algorithms of the internet do not. As political advertising increasingly shifts online, that peace of mind is not as easily found.
To entertain the idea of paperless campaigns highlights the bigger issue American politics faces. This country is great at spending money, though not always in the most effective way.
As the stack of campaign ads grows, there is a disheartening and overwhelming sense of disillusionment from everyday Americans. Who could blame them? Politicians shoving themselves down voter’s throats, it begins to feel like a dumpster fire of political advertisements that do nothing but waste time, effort and resources. Not to mention leaving people confused.
Where is the solution in all of this? An earlier study by Brookman and Kalla debunked the notion that people could not change their views on same-sex individuals. How did they debunk it? By introducing those of opposing viewpoints, someone against same-sex with someone who identified as gay or lesbian.
In the words of Kalla, “That was very much focusing on getting people to be introspective and think about times that they or their loved ones have been discriminated against, and how that made them feel, and how that real, lived experience informs their views on non-discrimination laws and views toward LGBT people. That’s close to an ideal of how we want democracy to function. That’s not the type of discourse you see in campaigns. I don’t think TV ads or every glossy postcard is really going to lead to enlightened discourse among the American public.”