Can lessons from political campaigns help solve the challenge of European citizens’ mobilization?

Oui on peut[1]: three words many of the 80,000 volunteers for François Hollande’s presidential campaign pronounced on May 6th 2012. They had just knocked at 5 million doors and taken part in the largest field campaign ever organized at the time on the European continent. For four months, they relentlessly went out in the field, in neighbourhoods where politics are often seen as a distant world, to meet and have a direct conversation with 10% of the French electorate.

The impact of this nationwide field campaign was unprecedented[2]: at the first round of the election, when visited by volunteers, 1 out of 5 voters who would have voted for the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in the absence of door-to-door voted for François Hollande. At the second round, volunteers contributed directly to one fourth of François Hollande’s victory margin, i.e., 300 000 votes. Many scientific experiments had proven that door-to-door was a very effective campaign technique but none had ever shown that it could also be a response to the rise of populism. What are the lessons for the European elections?

“Knock the Vote”: knocking on doors in 28+ languages

Since 2012, many progressive political parties have added door-to-door canvassing to their traditional campaign arsenal: in the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany or Austria, thousands of volunteers have knocked at millions of doors to encourage citizens to vote.

To prepare for the European elections, the Party of European Socialists (PES) launched an ambitious pan-European field campaign: “Knock the Vote”. The PES developed a tailored training program for thousands of activists across the 28 member countries and designed specific tools to help local field organizers rollout a professional campaign, inspired by best practices from campaigns in Europe and the United States.

Surprisingly, not long ago, door-to-door was seen as an old-fashioned campaign technique, that some candidates for local, low-salience elections would practice themselves. The idea of large-scale campaigns involving thousands of volunteers is relatively recent and gained international traction with Barack Obama’s first campaign in 2008.

Back to the future: door-to-door in the 21st century

The first evidence of the power of direct contact with voters came from the seminal work of Alan Gerber and Donald Green[3]. Their randomized control trial in New Haven in 1998 opened the way for the comeback of door-to-door canvassing in US campaigns. Since then, political scientists organized dozens of similar experiments, testing the tone of messages delivered by volunteers, spillover effect of door-to-door within households or the best approach to recruit new volunteers. The technique quickly became part of the standard toolkit of every US campaign manager. Everything accelerated with Barack Obama 2008 campaign: 1.5 million volunteers knocked at more than 35 million doors, with a strong impact on turnout among African-American and women[4], two groups who usually vote less. The rest is history.

The success of the Obama campaign helped diffuse door-to-door on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. The campaign we organized for François Hollande was directly inspired by Obama’s[5], and so were many others.

Knock on doors and win elections: has the PES found the Graal?

Door-to-door has proven very effective at reconquering disappointed voters, as the French example showed. Can it apply to European elections?

Yes it can. Any party that will organize volunteers to knock at doors will see a positive impact in the polls, the magnitude depending of course of the scale of the campaign. Is it, for all that, the solution to revive citizens’ interest in Europe?

For many voters, Europe has been perceived as untrustworthy, distant from their daily preoccupations. The exact same diagnostic can actually be made for politics in many European countries. And we saw with the French example that a field campaign changed – at least during the few months of the campaign – the image citizens disappointed by politics had of the latter. If the diagnostic is the same, can the solution be the same? Can field campaigning overhaul European citizens’ image of the European Union?

While a pan-European field campaign is a great idea, it will unfortunately not be sufficient to restore a common belief in l’idéal Européen. So what more can we do?

Well, I don’t know…

…But we can find out. In 2010, we didn’t know that door-to-door would help François Hollande gain 300.000 votes. We found out thanks to the power of scientific experiment. So here is an ambitious agenda for the next European Parliament: experiment which campaign tactic, communication channels, political events are most effective to engage with European citizens. And if that means more door-to-door, even outside of campaign periods, please count me in as volunteer.

[1] “Yes we can” in French

[2] For more details on the scientific methodology and the interpretation of the results, see Vincent Pons, “Does Door-to-door Canvassing Affect Vote Shares? Evidence from a Countrywide Field Experiment in France”, Working Paper (2013): http://economics.mit.edu/files/9000

[3] Alan Gerber and Donald Green, “Does canvassing increase voter turnout? A field experiment”, PNAS (1999)

[4] See Steve Ansolabehere and Charles Steward III, “Amazing Race”, Boston Review (2009): http://new.bostonreview.net/BR34.1/ansolabehere_stewart.php

[5] For more details, see “In France, Using Lessons from Obama Campaign”, New York Times (2012): http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/world/europe/in-france-hollande-camp-tries-us-style-canvassing.html?_r=0