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Social Pressure, Descriptive Norms, and Voter Mobilization


Several recent field experimental studies show that social pressure raises the likelihood of turning out to vote in elections. Ratcheting up social pressure to show subjects their own as well as their neighbors’ prior voting history significantly increases the effectiveness of direct mail messages. A key component in stimulating this effect seems to be the presence of individual vote history. When voters are presented with less specific turnout information, such as vote history for the community at-large, the effects on turnout often dissipate. Sensitizing voters to such descriptive norms appears to do little to stimulate participation. To address this contrast, this study presents results from a voter mobilization field experiment conducted in Hawthorne, CA prior to the November 2011 municipal elections. The experiment is a fully crossed 2 × 3 factorial study in which subjects were randomly assigned to one of six conditions, in which they receive no mailing, a mailing with individual vote history only, a mailing with individual vote history and a message emphasizing high (or low) community-level turnout from a previous election, and a mailing emphasizing high (or low) community-level turnout only. County voter files were used to randomly assign voters to treatment and control and to report the effects of each mailing on voter turnout. We find that only messages that included information about subjects’ own voting histories effectively mobilized them to vote.

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Fig. 1


  1. Gerber et al. (2008) report that mailings including individual vote history along with the vote history of all registered voters in a household as well as the vote history of neighbors, including a warning that voting behavior will be revealed publicly, increase turnout by 8.1 % points on average.

  2. See, for example, Gerber et al. (2008), Mann (2010), and Panagopoulos (2010).

  3. Despite resource limitations that constrained the sizes of our experimental treatment samples, we note that our experiment was designed to be adequately powered (at the power = .80 level) to detect treatment effects in the 2-percentage point range.

  4. Though many studies of descriptive norms in the psychological literature employ stronger treatments, with perfect or nearly perfect compliance, we were concerned about compromising the credibility of the turnout message. Rather than deploy artificial or inflated turnout rates, we use actual turnout levels from two recent elections in Hawthorne, CA: 70 % of registered voters cast ballots in the November 2008 elections, and 35 % voted in November 2006, based on reported turnout in the voter file obtained for this study. We note further that the 70 % compliance figure is also comparable to the level (71 %) Gerber and Rogers (2009) use in their California study.

  5. As we note above, the actual turnout levels used in this study were selected and assigned by the researchers. Notwithstanding our efforts to randomly manipulate subjects’ perceptions about turnout level norms in their community, we acknowledge that some subjects may have been more precisely aware of actual turnout patterns in recent or comparable election cycles. Such awareness would have been randomly distributed across conditions.

  6. We acknowledge that a substantial portion of California voters are signed up for permanent vote-by-mail (absentee) status. We did not exclude these voters from the experiment we conducted, but we expect, given random assignment, absentee voters to be evenly distributed across experimental conditions. As expected, we detect no differences in the rates of absentee voting across experimental conditions in our experiments (Scheffe multiple-comparison test is insignificant, p > F = .35; details available upon request). However, if subjects had voted by absentee ballot in advance of our treatments, they could not have been affected by the intervention. Such failure-to-treat would only magnify the estimated intent-to-treat effects we report.

  7. We acknowledge that some subjects assigned to be treated may not have been successfully contacted, but reliable estimates of contact rates for direct mailings are unavailable. Thus, we report intent-to-treat effects throughout, noting these are likely conservative estimates of the treatment effects. Taking contact rates into account would only magnify the treatment effects we report.

  8. We are indebted to an anonymous reviewer for this suggestion.


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Funding for this study was provided by the Office of Research at Fordham University. We thank Dr. Nancy Busch and James Wilson. We are grateful to Donald Green, Rick Matland, and to the editor and anonymous referees for thoughtful comments and suggestions.

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Correspondence to Costas Panagopoulos.

Appendix: Treatment Mailings

Appendix: Treatment Mailings

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Panagopoulos, C., Larimer, C.W. & Condon, M. Social Pressure, Descriptive Norms, and Voter Mobilization. Polit Behav 36, 451–469 (2014).

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  • Randomized field experiments
  • Social pressure
  • Descriptive norms
  • Injunctive norms
  • Voter mobilization