Organizing Pillar Deep Dive: Persuasion with David Nickerson

Through a variety of different goals, political organizers operate under four  main pillars: persuasion, organizational capacity building, voter registration, and turnout. These pillars are used by campaign leadership from every department to determine the best, most efficient path to gaining the right amount of votes needed  to meet the campaign’s win number.

Each issue of 63 Magazine, we will take a look at one pillar and conduct a deep dive with an expert in the field to provide you with easy and implementable best practices to use in your turf. For this issue, we spoke with Dr. David Nickerson, a professor of political science at Temple University who served as the director of experiments on President Obama’s 2012 campaign, to learn from his expertise around moving voters.

The major focus of David’s research is working with campaigns to study how best they can mobilize people—whether to increase volunteer rates, to increase donation rates, to persuade more voters, or to get more people to actually vote. He does this using randomized field trials, using similar techniques that pharmaceutical companies use to test new drugs. David and his team will take subsets of voters, randomly assign them to either receive a treatment (e.g. an issue persuasion phone call) or to the control group where they will not receive this treatment.

The only difference between these groups of voters is whether they receive a treatment or not. David can then attribute any difference in their support for the candidate to the treatment applied. This allows researchers like David to understand much more about the way individuals make voting decisions, like: “Does receiving a Get Out the Vote call make a voter more likely to vote?” (YES!), “Does a more conversational tone make a persuasion call more effective?” (YES!), and, “Does telling a voter they will receive a follow up call after election day make them more likely to vote?” (YES!).

In graduate school, Nickerson, who has always enjoyed working directly with communities, began working with Don Green, a pioneer in using experiments in campaigns. Nickerson was very excited to learn he could work with neighborhood organizations to measure the effectiveness of their outreach. Since then, he’s been doing just that.

As the director of experiments for Obama for America, Nickerson worked with departments to determine where experiments could help inform program and make them more efficient in cycle,  and then executed these experiments where needed. He also worked to translate his experimental knowledge to the work happening across the campaign, using lessons from social psychology to inform messaging and outreach to voters through each avenue.

Nickerson has vast knowledge around voter persuasion, but he continues to test more, study more, and look for even more effective practices. After talking with him, we learned so much about moving voters.

Here are the best practices he shared that you can apply right now to be more persuasive.

Make it personal.

It’s absolutely crucial to make each conversation with voters as personal as possible. When you are rushing through scripts, you are not going to persuade anyone. Recognize that you are an individual talking to another individual  and having a conversation. Try to connect personally, even if briefly, with each voter prospect you contact. In David’s research and in the research of others, it is a consistent finding that slightly personalized talking points are more effective.

But stay in control of the conversation.

Be personal, but don’t let the voter dictate the terms of the conversation. It may seem appealing to say, “Maria, what issue is most important to you? Let’s talk about my candidate’s policies around that issue,” but what if the most important issue for Maria is gun rights? Even if you have a great answer prepared, “Obama has no intention of taking away the guns of responsible gun owners,” the best case scenario is Maria didn’t “ding” you on this issue. But are gun rights really the terms of the debate you want to use to persuade someone to vote for your candidate? Probably not.

Or maybe you’re lucky and Maria says she’s most concerned about, “the crappy economy.” Yes! The economy—you were hoping for that answer. But do we really want to frame the economy as “crappy”? No, you would much rather voters think about the consecutive quarters of growth under President Obama, but now you are stuck arguing against their premise.

If you start off with the talking points your candidate is pushing, you have now framed the debate in the way you want. Instead of starting with, “The economy is crappy, let’s do something about it,” you’re starting with, “Obama’s policies have created 30 quarters of straight growth and we want to keep this up.” That is a much more positive framing.

Practice your scripts. A LOT.

How on earth do you stick to your campaign’s talking points and still make a personal connection? You practice your scripts over and over.

At the start of most phone banks and canvasses, you walk through the script with your volunteers and ask them to practice the script. Thoughtful script training is a great exercise. You, your volunteers, and your fellow organizers will naturally get more comfortable with your scripts as you make more phone calls and knock on more doors.

In addition to this natural practicing, make a point to gather your volunteers after an outreach event to have them go over the script again, pointing out what really worked for them. Paid call centers frequently gather up their callers and ask them to talk about what’s working and what’s not working and how they can adapt the script together. This practice makes them more effective.

You have so much going on around outreach events that this can often get forgotten, but don’t let it. Make time for this practice of comparing notes and sharing valuable feedback, and you and your volunteers will be much more persuasive.

Be as local as possible.

Connecting neighbors to other neighbors to involve individuals in changing their community is the heart of organizing. You already know it is so much more effective for a neighbor to talk to someone they live down the street from about your candidate or your issue, than it is for an outsider to do so. That’s why so much of your job is recruiting and training local volunteers to do as much of the necessary voter outreach as possible.

Continue to train your volunteers to make a personal connection at the door and on the phones around their shared community. Volunteers will be more persuasive if they establish a rapport by mentioning, “I live on Poplar Street,” or, “I think we went to the same high school.” When a voter connects with a volunteer around a shared community, they recognize that this volunteer is more relatable than a stranger calling from out of state, which increases trust.

And you can make yourself more local too! When you first join a campaign, it is so crucial to become a part of the community. Drive around to get to know your turf, attend local events, and meet with as many community leaders as possible.

Pause! And listen for pauses.

Next time you have a conversation with a friend, pay attention to the subtle pauses that you each take. People take these small pauses to provide openings for the other person to be interactive. These aren’t super long pauses—sometimes they are just a beat. But these beats are important; without them, you will feel like you’re being talked at rather than having a conversation.

When you talk to a voter, pause! Don’t just rush through everything really quickly. Listen to their pauses when they are responding to you. Try to give each conversation a natural cadence. Practicing will make this a lot easier.

Stick to one theme per conversation.

While you are making your script personal, make sure NOT to add an entirely new dimension or layer to the conversation. For instance, if you wanted to do issue persuasion calls, it is not a good idea to try to put voter mobilization on top of it.

You can vaguely think about this as if each voter is capable of carrying one request in their head. If you’re six months away from election day and the most important request is to support your candidate, that is the message you want to leave the voter with. If you add on a new message, it might displace that which is your priority.

No one phrase or practice is a magic bullet for persuasion.

The most surprising thing that David and other researchers have found is that many long-standing findings from social psychology actually have a weak effect on moving voters. Concepts like descriptive social norms or identity labeling (such as, “You as a voter care about this upcoming election”) show very little evidence of making a difference. Other concepts with really lengthy histories such as loss aversion (people’s tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains) have yet to show strong motivational evidence in persuading voters.

Even though some of these practices implemented from other fields of research show very little evidence of making a difference around voting, you should still practice them! No single phrase is going to be the magic bullet that makes you the most persuasive organizer in the world.

And that’s okay.

Persuading voters to change a position or to begin supporting your candidate is a really hard task. Voters care about these decisions and they don’t take them lightly.

That is why it’s up to you to organize your volunteers to get as many neighbors as possible talking to their neighbors. Each phone call and each door knock your team makes is critical because each is one step towards reaching your campaign’s persuasion goals.

Next time you meet with your volunteer leaders, bring this list of best practices with you and discuss with them what you can implement in your teams to be even more persuasive.