Double take: Months of canvassing, 430 votes to show for it?

This election cycle, members of the student group Yale for Change spent countless hours traveling to battleground states, phone-banking and door-knocking for Sen. Barack Obama. Their efforts appeared to pay off Tuesday as voter turnout soared nationwide and the Democratic presidential nominee won the presidency.

But according to a model developed by Yale professors to assess the effectiveness of campaign techniques, their tens of thousands of phone calls made and doorbells rung probably spurred no more than a few hundred extra voters to go to the polls.

As many as 11 million more Americans voted Tuesday than in the 2004 presidential election, according to data compiled by the United States Elections Project at George Mason University. But based on a 2002 study on ‘get out the vote’ efforts by Yale political science professors Donald Green and Alan Gerber and then-postdoctoral associate David Nickerson, Yale for Change’s efforts may not have accounted for more than about 430 of those 11 million new voters.

In the study, the three professors carried out a series of door-to-door canvassing experiments in six American cities, from Bridgeport to St. Paul, Minn. The professors found that during a local election, each face-to-face contact with a voter increased his or her chance of voting by seven percent. Their results also suggested that every 12 face-to-face contacts garner one additional vote.

Although the study was done on local elections, Nickerson, now a political science professor at Notre Dame, said that if individuals are targeted because they are unlikely to vote, even in a high turnout election, the study’s conclusions could still be generally applied to this year’s presidential campaign.

Gerber agreed, though he said the equation would have to be modified slightly. He estimated that, for presidential elections, each contact increases an individual’s chance of voting by four percent. Given that, it would take 20 face-to-face contacts to get one additional voter to the polls, Gerber said.

But Gerber’s research did not address instances where canvassers attempted to sway voters; it only predicts the increase in overall turnout from mobilization efforts.

Yale for Change did both in New Hampshire, said Yale College Democrats president Ben Shaffer ’09. Canvassing in Philadelphia last weekend consisted solely of mobilization, Yale for Obama co-director Jacob Koch ’10 said.

All told, Yale for Change’s records show students involved with the group knocked on over 23,000 doors and logged over 50,000 calls between the start of school and Election Day. After subtracting canvassing that involved persuasion, the number of doors knocked for the purpose of mobilization is 17,825. Shaffer said only a third to a half of homes visited resulted in a face-to-face contact, bringing the number of voters reached down to about 5,940.

Given Gerber’s ratio, it is likely that their canvassing efforts resulted in an overall increase in turnout of about 297 votes.

Additionally, Gerber said that his team calculated that for every 400 pieces of campaign literature distributed, one more voter goes to the polls. Literature dropped by Yale for Change, then, brought in an additional 40 votes. Gerber then said an additional 100 votes should be added to the total to account for indirect effects of face-to-face contacts, bringing the final tally to 437 votes gained for Obama in both Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. In Philadelphia alone, the number is about 271 votes.

As for the calls, Gerber said that in a presidential election one additional vote could be won after 100 successful phone conversations in which the volunteer actually spoke with the voter. Ben Lazarus ’10, co-director of Yale for Change, said his organization does not have complete records of which of the 50,000 calls made went to voicemail. Gerber said he doubted whether voicemail messages were “worth very much at all,” as he put it, and therefore could not assess the total impact of calls made.

Michael Jones ’11, who went door-to-door for Obama in Milford, N.H., said that despite the low statistical effect of canvassing on turnout, such campaigns can have far-reaching repercussions.

“The numbers tell one story, but when you leave literature on the door maybe someone you didn’t even intend to reach will read it. Maybe it gets picked up by some 13-year-old kid who can’t vote now, but develops an interest in politics or becomes a lifelong Democrat,” Jones said. “You may never know the effect you’re having.”

Yale for Obama volunteer Sam Brill ’10 said while he thought it “honestly impossible” to pinpoint the number of votes Yale for Change won, he argued that there was another benefit of doing the work.

“What’s important, and what Obama has shown, is a lot of this election was about getting people engaged for the first time,” Brill said. “Literally hundreds of people that I knew became part of history.”

Nora Caplan-Bricker contributed reporting.


  • Anonymous

    This article needlessly trivializes the work of Yale for Change. Multiply what these students did by the hundreds of other groups across the country that sent out canvassers, and you've got a movement that almost certainly had an enormous impact on this election. In key swing states, margins of victory are often tiny: 430 votes would have meant a great deal in Florida in 2000, in New Mexico in 2004, or in the Minnesota senate race this year.

  • Bob

    So, Anonymous, faced with research based on actual data that says that these efforts don't have much impact, your response boils down to "does so have an impact, because I don't want to accept that it doesn't."

  • Anonymous

    This article is a little bit absurd. The YDN knows very well that nobody at Yale thinks he single-handedly won the election for Obama. The point is that all efforts count, and Yale for Change played an impressively large role in an even more impressive national campaign.
    Only Sam Brill's quote at the end of the article begins to touch on how moving it was to see so many Yalies working tirelessly for something they believed in.
    The YDN might as well have published an article with the headline "Breaking News: Your Individual Vote Didn't Count" if the editors really hold store with the logic that this article professes. Obviously a small number of votes doesn't win an election, but a lot of small numbers of votes, added together, does. Everyone at Yale knows this, and the YDN shouldn't attempt to devalue the activism of Yale students in a shockingly shallow attempt to be "provocative."

  • Palin Lover

    Here's a more productive way to win hundreds of votes:

    Pay election workers to canvass! (or don't pay them, as the case may be)

    Surely, if Yale students spent their time fundraising, they could make more of an impact than canvassing themselves.

  • anonymous

    why does the article use 11 million as the benchmark? canvasses and phonebanks target all likely Obama voters, whether or not they've voted before. also, what about the broader context of the total number of contacts made. for instance, in PA on Sunday the campaign as a whole hit over 1.5 million doors. shouldn't this group's results be measured as part of a whole?

  • Anonymous

    Hey. I know I personally knocked on about 240 doors in only one weekend. I wasn't the most cogent canvasser but still I know that I personally let a few people know they could vote who didn't think they could. If it hadn't been for me they wouldn't have voted at all. Even if my 280 doors resulted only in two votes I know I fought for democracy this year. What did the rest of you do?

  • Claire

    this really isn't a news story. of course individual activist groups don't sway an election (although yale for change's operation was incredibly impressive). 430 votes x a thousand college obama groups + thousands of other groups = victory. that's how a campaign works.

    that's how democracy works.

  • Alumn all the way in CA

    And your point is???? If you are trying to discourage or devalue the efforts of anyone which may have lead to the landslide victory of the Democratic Presidential nominee then just be frank about it and state such as an opinion. Your theoretical stance is there to give credence to some type of neutrality but in essence your presentation sounds more like back lash. The value of change is accountable down to every single individual who participates in a movement. Don't belittle that fact by assuming that any number - no matter how small or great - is neglible on a grand scale. Just remember, yes we did!

  • Nicholas Olsen

    The article does not address how the three professors arrived at their model, an important part of the scientific process. Without this kind of information there is no reason to give any weight to their predictions.

    Without more background this piece can hardly be considered news. Has their model been published in peer reviewed journals, or repeatedly been shown to predict with some precision? No, their model is unable to be tested with scientific rigor, a problem inherent in all social sciences.

    I am disappointed that the YDN has decided to print a piece calculated only to turn heads and not something more newsworthy.

  • Nick R

    What a terrible, thoughtless, and irrelevant article.
    Statistics are useful on an abstract and wider level, but the only thing this does is discourage people from getting involved, nor does this model take into account the different social, emotional, and political factors in this election.
    The article itself is addresses interesting modes of analysis but if this is the only coverage of Yale for Change's work, then that (along with the rediculous title) is an insult. Missed the point by many, many miles.

  • Was Canvassing in New Hampshire on Nov. 4

    I'm overwhelmingly disappointed by Divya's article. When youth turnout suddenly spikes, it's hard to believe that that phenomenon was not helped in some way by phonebanking, canvassing, and talking to other young Americans about voting. The last method, clearly, is not exactly tangible.

    I don't think the turnout can necessarily be counted based on how many more people showed up simply as a direct cause of phonebanking or canvassing. The sheer energy and excitement behind those votes can't be accurately simplified and calculated using studies and statistics. There are many factors that can discount the accuracy of a study such as the one performed, such as the fact that we do not live in a vacuum and are affected not only by what limited experience--in this case, phonebanking or canvassing--that the study covers, but also by the attitudes of those people around us.

    In the end, if I had to do that canvassing all over again in the cold fog of the early morning in New Hampshire for only one person's vote, I would.

    This article was clearly written with a closed-minded and purposefully-critical spin. That spin has clearly gone too far and has not taken into account many other factors that affect voters. The YDN needs to stop trying to force the "interesting" into articles and stop criticizing things for the sake of criticizing them.

  • Anonymous

    This piece is written with an unnecessarily negative and critical tone. Sure, 437 votes might not, by themselves, seem like a lot (given that those statistics/equations/numbers are close to correct), however, that, combined with similar efforts by other student and youth organizations across the nation, accounts for the huge increase in voter turnout this election.

    Shame on you, for framing so many students' months of hard work and dedication in such a belittling way.

  • Anonymous

    I was interviewed for this article while I was canvassing in NH two days before the election, and I'm honestly a little disappointed to see the slant that this article took based on what I--and everyone around me--was saying. No one is under any delusion that the people who come out to the door and tell you to get the hell off of their lawn have been swayed by your presence. What I said regarding this question is that I was well aware that most of the voter contacts were meaningless in terms of actual persuasion. But that is way to easy to dismiss for someone who is outside of the process. Winning just one vote is incredibly powerful; after all, it does double your impact. More importantly, though, as canvassers and phonebankers, we were all part of one of the most impressive movements our country has seen in decades, and we will continue as part of this movement throughout Obama's presidency. When we all began to chant "Yes, we DID" on Tuesday night on Old Campus, were you able to chant along? Or did you have to settle for "Yes, you did?"

  • Nathan Tek '09

    just because it makes you feel bad doesn't mean the research is bad or that the article is incorrect. grow up, Dems.

  • Anonymous


    No one here said that the research was bad or that the article was incorrect. What we said was that the article was purposefully crafted with a negative angle. Look at the first two paragraphs. It says the Dems' efforts "appeared" to turn out successful when Obama won…"But" we only were responsible for a few votes. Clear implication: our efforts were not indeed successful.

    Yes, the facts in the article all seem to be correct, and I'm not in any position to judge the research, but the conclusions the article draws are way off base. When 537 votes prevented Al Gore from winning in 2000 and 239 votes separate the candidates for the Senate in Minnesota this year, it's hard to make the case that winning 430 votes is not a big deal.

  • Anonymous

    While the article does marginalize the work that many students did I also don't understand why it was written. The study is from 2002. The model would obviously not take into account a number of things which affected this election.

    Furthermore, to say that students need to "grow up" because they are responding to the article is silly. This election affected so many students in such a profound way. When we were working in Philadelphia and Scranton the response we received was incredibly inspiring. Did that translate to a number of votes? Who really cares? What matters is that so many students at Yale took part in a historic election.

    On Tuesday we saw an incredible thing happen. And so many students felt like they were a part of it. If some of us are upset at seeing our work marginalized I don't think that is out of line.

  • bimp

    Something made a difference in states like VA, NC, PA, MN …

    Research like this should not dissuade young or new voters. All the work made a difference.

  • So you mean Yale for Obama didnt win the election

    Im confused. I thought that was their whole platform? does this article somehow mean that obama might have won without them?

    The outcry over this otherwise fair and obvoius article is absurd. Of course it only got a few hundred votes. if this is offensive or suprising then you are retarded.

    Millions are raised by campaigns and they dont spend them all on phonebanking and knocking on doors bc that is not that effective. 4-7% rate sounds very reasonable.

    Brills quote is right at the end. The participation of students and getting involved and wanting to help is an admirable thing. But the ego of many of the Yale for Obama members, and the anger they have shown in response to being shown that perhaps not every person they called is rediculous. . .

  • alum

    As a campaign organizer myself, and based on my personal experience with conducting advocacy campaigns, I agree with all of the points of this article.

    Canvassing can make a difference - especially if the election is within a few hundred votes - but the bigger changes in society and voting patterns are brought about by the people who work on social change & education and who build personal relationships day-in, day-out, all year long, for their entire lives.

    The student quoted at the end, who says that these efforts can make a difference in the long-term, is also correct. But his quote is only true if these efforts are sustained over the long term and result in meaningful progressive advances.

    Still, it is a matter of degree. The work of Yale for Change is obviously much more significant than the work of the people who gave $50 bucks to McCain while continuing to drive their 4,000 pound SUVs for 2 hours per day. For that, they should be congratulated.

    But that doesn't at all take away from the points made by this article.

  • The real question

    is how much money 430 votes is worth

    ie: how much money would have been required to get Obama 430 votes w/o the help of the fascistii for change.