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Are Voters Mobilized by a ‘Friend-and-Neighbor’ on the Ballot? Evidence from a Field Experiment

Abstract

In his seminal work on Southern politics, V.O. Key observed that voters disproportionately support local candidates at the ballot box. While empirical analyses have confirmed “friends-and-neighbors” voting across numerous electoral contexts, no one has directly examined voter turnout as the mechanism linking place of residence to vote choice. We argue that place of residence is a social identity that incentivizes citizens to turn out to vote on behalf of the local candidate. We test this mobilization mechanism using a randomized field experiment conducted during a 2014 state legislative primary election. Our results show that county ties between candidates and voters likely boost turnout. Our findings contribute to our understanding of the importance of place identity for turnout decisions in low-information elections.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    The exception is vice-presidential candidates. The literature shows no statistically significant increase in vote share in the home state of the vice-presidential candidate (Dudley and Rapoport 1989; Garand 1988; Holbrook 1991; but see Heersink and Peterson 2016).

  2. 2.

    We also note that the relative importance of town vs. county could vary given both information levels about candidate ties and the electoral context. In a local election, we would anticipate that voters are more aware of candidate ties and that these ties are of relatively more importance in the decision whether to vote and for whom to vote. In an election for a highly salient office, such as Governor, however, geographic ties might be less known and behavioral decisions might be more likely to be driven by policy considerations (e.g., the state of the economy) or the like. In the discussion section below, we expand on these possibilities further.

  3. 3.

    Granovetter’s hypothesis has been confirmed by other sociologists who show that, by building weak ties, individuals in a network accrue information they could not gather through their own network of strong ties (Constant et al. 1996; Cross and Cummings 2004; Levin and Cross 2004; Morrison 2002). Moreover, political scientists have subsequently adapted this framework to explain mobilization, lobbying and policy change, and congressional voting behavior (Carpenter et al. 1998; Huckfeldt and Sprague 1995; Kirkland 2011).

  4. 4.

    Note that this expectation is independent of the candidate’s ability to directly mobilize friends (in either the town or county). The mobilization literature emphasizes the importance of neighbor, rather than stranger, driven get-out-the-vote operations. Our argument, however, focuses on the information flow of networks, rather than the dynamics of voter mobilization efforts. We do not claim that “more distant” mobilization efforts are more effective, but that the transmission of information is larger among more dispersed communities.

  5. 5.

    Massachusetts has a modified closed primary system, where only those registered as Democrats, Republicans, or as Unenrolled may participate. For the purposes of our experiment, we restrict the sample to registered Democrats in order to test our theory in a true primary election, while minimizing the likelihood that Republican-leaning, Unenrolled voters could respond negatively to information about a Democratic primary.

  6. 6.

    Richard Ross, the Republican incumbent, did not face a primary challenge, and eventually went on to easily defeat Hayre in the general election, 61–39%.

  7. 7.

    Note that the within-town percentages do not add up to 100% because there were also 293 blank votes (20%) in Natick and 99 blank/other votes (11%) in Attleboro.

  8. 8.

    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.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Marc Meredith, Donald Green and conference participants at MPSA 2015 for helpful comments on earlier drafts. We are also grateful to Maryann Draine and Diane Packer for providing us with validated voter turnout data and to Meagan Snow for research assistance. This study was approved by the Office of the Institutional Review Board at Fordham University (ID: IRB-14-08-CP-010). Brian Hamel acknowledges the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program for support. Replication data can be found at https://dataverse.harvard.edu/dataverse/polbehavior.

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Correspondence to Costas Panagopoulos.

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Appendix: Treatment Versions

Appendix: Treatment Versions

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Panagopoulos, C., Leighley, J.E. & Hamel, B.T. Are Voters Mobilized by a ‘Friend-and-Neighbor’ on the Ballot? Evidence from a Field Experiment. Polit Behav 39, 865–882 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-016-9383-3

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Keywords

  • “Friends-and-neighbors” voting
  • Localism
  • Turnout
  • Social identity
  • Field experiments