A new study out of Duke University confirms that campaign communications can be targeted in such a way as to prevent certain groups from turning out on election day.
Grad student Ying Shi conducted the study, which sought to measure the effects of cross-cutting messages on voter turnout. The study, which Shi published in 2015, looks specifically at the May 2012 primary elections in North Carolina, which included a vote on Amendment 1, a proposed amendment banning same-sex marriage.
To test whether or not disagreement stimulates or discourages political participation, Shi sent 9,211 individuals (roughly half Democrat, half Republican) one of two messages: a pro-marriage equality message (“Denying marriage to same-sex couples is a form of discrimination”) or an anti-marriage equality message (“Nontraditional forms of marriage result in children growing up in an environment that often lacks a biological parent.”). She then compared their turnout to a control group.
The results were not too surprising. Voters who received messages affirming their beliefs (pro-marriage equality for Democrats, anti-marriage equality for Republicans) were more likely to vote than voters receiving messages that contradicted their beliefs.
However, these effects were not consistent across the board. In fact, the only group for whom the results were consistently significant were Republicans who received the pro-marriage equality message, especially if they lived in large households of three or more people.
Shi was hesitant to conclude that this meant anything specific about Republicans. She rationalized that if the sample had been bigger, the same results would have probably shown up in the pool of Democrats. Regardless, she noted that demobilization effects were much stronger than mobilization effects, meaning that getting someone to stay home from voting is much easier than getting them to turn out.
That being said, the study hints at an interesting new tactic in campaign messaging that could be particularly effective for issue-based votes, such as gun control for Republicans or Abortion rights for Democrats.