It’s Not Only about the Mousetrap

Over the past decade, there has been an explosion in field experiments designed to find the best techniques for mobilizing American voters. These efforts have expanded significantly our understanding of “what works” for getting voters to the polls. Yet, the focus of these efforts has almost exclusively been on the best tactics for mobilization, or the mousetrap, without significant consideration of possible differences across voters themselves.

This focus is, in fact, a product of a fundamental (what academics would call epistemological) assumption on the part of many experimental researchers: that there are no significant differences that differentiate voters beyond their vote propensity. If that is the core assumption, then any research designs that flow from that are going to focus on which strategies work with voters of different vote propensities. The resulting information would tell us what works with high propensity voters versus low propensity voters, et cetera. Not surprisingly, that is what the vast majority of the experimental research has shown us.

Yet, fifty years of political behavior research has demonstrated that voting propensities in the United States vary significantly by ethnoracial group. Latinos and Asian Americans, for example, have voting rates that can lag behind those of whites by as much as 20 percentage points even after controlling for their socioeconomic status (SES). What can explain these differences if it is not simply their SES?

History, geography, racialization, and ethnoracial groups’ structural position within U.S. society are the most logical answers to that question. In order to engage in politics, a person must believe they have the right and ability to do so. They must believe that political engagement is what “people like me” do, and that those efforts will result in something meaningful. For members of ethnoracial groups who were historically excluded from the franchise, and who remain limited in terms of their available opportunities for political engagement, seeing themselves as voters is a bigger stretch. In these instances, voter mobilization efforts need to consider the effect ethnoracial group status might have on voters’ receptivity to a GOTV message.

In Mobilizing Inclusion, Melissa Michelson and I studied community organizations engaging in precisely these sorts of culturally competent forms of voter outreach and demonstrate – through an analysis of 268 field experiments and over 3,000 hours of field observation – that efforts that take seriously the characteristics of the “mouse,” along with the structure of the mousetrap, are very effective among voters of color. 

If we are serious about making our electorate look more like our population, it is important that we take into consideration the legacies of our nation’s racial history that are still present in our communities, and the impact those legacies have on political engagement across different voter populations. A one-size-fits-all mousetrap will not be sufficient to overcome the deeply rooted inequalities that remain within the U.S. political system.

- Lisa García Bedolla, AMPRI Co-Founder and Principal