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When Campaign Volunteers Do More Harm Than Good

Volunteers often don't look or sound like the people they're trying to win over, and that can be costly.
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The last few presidential election cycles have seen a rise in the recruitment of volunteers and in the sophistication with which they're deployed. We know from a variety of evidence that door-to-door canvassing is about the most effective form of campaigning that exists. But could some volunteers actually end up hurting the campaign?

That's what political scientists Ryan Enos and Eitan Hersh found in their paper "Party Activists as Campaign Managers," recently published in the American Political Science Review. As they note, modern presidential campaigns go out of their way to produce advertisements that are tailored for their local audience. They choose actors, backgrounds, themes, and language to appeal most effectively to Iowa farmers, Florida retirees, and Ohio factory workers. It's hard to beat the sophistication with which modern campaigns match an ad to its intended target.

But it's an entirely different story when it comes to recruiting campaign volunteers. Campaigns can't build canvassers the way they can manufacture television ads; they're dependent on the available pool of local volunteers. Who actually volunteers to give up their time to walk precincts and knock on doors in the weeks prior to an election? It's really not your average American. It's hard enough to get the average American to vote in most elections.

A volunteer from Berkeley or Brooklyn simply isn't going to be of much use in the non-competitive states of California or New York.

As Enos and Hersh find in their analysis of President Obama's campaign workers in 2012, those who will actually offer their labor tend to be somewhat wealthier, whiter, more educated, and more liberal than the electorate as a whole. They believe different things and prioritize issues differently than the people they're being sent out to persuade.

What's more, the volunteers often aren't from the same area to which they're being deployed. Volunteers can be very effective when they're canvassing in their local community, but quite often, those communities simply aren't competitive in the election. A volunteer from Berkeley or Brooklyn simply isn't going to be of much use in the non-competitive states of California or New York, so the campaign will likely send them to a swing state like Colorado or Pennsylvania. This is certainly commendable volunteerism, but it also means that these volunteers will be canvassing in neighborhoods where nobody knows them and in which they don't know any of the local customs or cultural touch-points.

So imagine the typical scenario: a white, liberal, affluent California college student is sent to convince a Latino hotel employee in Las Vegas to get out and vote for the Democratic presidential candidate. Why vote for this candidate? Probably for very different reasons than the Nevadan cares about. It's a huge mismatch, particularly given the great efforts the campaigns put into targeting potential voters and tailoring messages that will resonate with them.

Does this actually end up hurting campaigns? That's difficult to say, but the effect is likely not large. For one thing, this same phenomenon likely affects both parties equally; republican activists are probably as out-of-sync with their prospective voters as democrats are with theirs. The two campaigns are canceling each other out to a large extent. For another, it's not like the influence of canvassing on the vote is enormous to begin with. Even while it's one of the more effective forms of campaigning, it still only moves the needle by a point or two in the most optimistic studies. But it's possible that effect could be bigger if not for the mismatch of canvassers and voters.

Nonetheless, this is simply an inevitable byproduct of polarization. The fact that the parties are moving further apart makes it easier for them to find ideologically motivated volunteers who are willing to upend their lives for a little while on behalf of a campaign. But it also means that those volunteers will increasingly look different from the voters they're trying to win over.

What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.