Organizing Pillar Deep Dive: Turnout with David Nickerson

Through a variety of different goals, political organizers operate using four main pillars: persuasion, organizational building, voter registration, and turnout. Campaign leadership uses these pillars 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, conducting 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 63Mag regular 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 to increase volunteer rates, to increase donation rates, to persuade more voters, or to get people to actually vote. He does this using randomized field trials, using similar techniques pharmaceutical companies use to test a new drug. These trials allow researchers like David to understand much more about the way individuals make voting decisions.

We talked with David for Issue 2’s persuasion deep dive and his advice was so helpful, we wanted to learn from his expertise around turnout. When conducting experiments around voter mobilization, researchers are most interested in answering two questions: who should campaigns be talking to (hint: most often not those with the highest or lowest likelihood to vote) and what should they say when they talk to them.

Though Nickerson and his colleagues work hard to find what exact approaches work best to encourage turnout, he believes, “The magic word that makes a script effective is hello.”

Despite all of the research behind key phrases on your turnout scripts, Nickerson insists there is no magic phrase you or your volunteers can say to ensure your targets vote. Instead, he knows that a neighbor initiating a natural and human conversation with their fellow neighbor is the most important part of mobilization.

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

Here are the best practices he shared that you can apply right now.


Be human. Train your volunteers.

“Having your volunteer make contact with a voter and be likable and form as much of a connection as they can (in the context of an awkward conversation) is going to be more mobilizing than any other social psychological trick you can employ.”

Take the time to thoughtfully train each of your volunteer leaders and make sure they take the time to train their volunteers. Remind volunteers to speak naturally, to take small pauses, and to adapt the script to their comfortable language. The most important thing you can do to increase turnout is to have high-quality callers and door-knockers; that starts with recruiting and training neighbors to talk to their neighbors.

Trust your targeting: focus only on turnout.

When you have a conversation with a voter, you should ask that person to do only one thing. You can either ask them to vote a certain way or you can ask them to turn out and vote. If you layer on requests, you often undermine your ability to mobilize. Trust that your targeting is accurate and don’t clog up your conversation with multiple asks.

Recruit volunteers who speak the native language of your voters.

Turnout efforts should work largely the same no matter what neighborhood you’re in or who you’re talking to. The one exception to this rule is language. If you have turf where the language spoken in the home is Spanish, ideally the turnout conversation would also be in Spanish.

So as you recruit volunteers in your turf, remember this and do your best to match bilingual speakers with voters who would benefit from a phone call in their native language.

Hold people accountable by thanking them for their previous votes.

Social accountability, showing voters that someone will know if they are voting, is an effective way to create pressure for voters to show up to the polls. But you can do this without being rude or intrusive. Instead of shaming the voter, thank the person for voting in the past, for registering to vote, and for taking their civic duty seriously. Both will hold the voter accountable and will encourage them to vote, but showing gratitude will make the conversation kinder, leaving the voter feeling better about voting.

Provide useful information when asking for plan-making.

You’ve probably heard that people are more likely to follow through on activities if they’ve thought through the different steps they need to take, forming a mental plan for that activity. This is why your GOTV scripts often include the question, “When do you plan to vote?”.

This effect is real, but try to make the process less awkward and more natural by providing information before you ask a question that might seem invasive to the voter. Say, “I see your polling place is Barton Elementary School. Is that close enough to walk to or will you have to drive?” or “Polls are open between 6:00 AM and 7:00 PM. What time do you think you’re going to vote?”

Any time you apply a psychological construct to a script, make sure it doesn’t alter the casual flow or interfere with a normal conversation.

Make the voter feel that people like them are voting.

When you speak to a GOTV target, you want them to feel that people like them are all voting. You can do this by using identity labeling, i.e. “As a voter” or “You’re a voter”. But it’s also important to connect with them around other things you have in common. Establish this by having your volunteers mention where they’re calling from, showing the target that they have shared reference points.

Ask your volunteer leaders for script feedback.

As you introduce new scripts to your volunteers, ask for their feedback. Your volunteers know your turf better than you do—it’s their neighborhood! If they practice the script with you and something feels clunky or they feel like the language won’t resonate, work through ways to adapt the script with them. The more natural they feel, the higher quality conversations they will have.

Each phone call and each door knock your team makes is critical because each one is a step towards reaching your campaign’s turnout 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 more effective turning out voters.

Interested in reading more about the science behind mobilizing voters? David recommends Get Out the Vote by Alan Gerber and Don Green as the most effective resource on turnout. He also suggests you join the Analyst Institute (we featured them in Issue 3!) to receive their best practices.