The Cruz campaign's epic #facepalm

This "VOTING VIOLATION" controversy says bad things about the Cruz campaign. (BTW, Rubio's campaign sent a similar, but less creepy, mailer, too. So far, I have not seen a large number of complaints about the Rubio mailer.)

And I'm not talking about the ethics of publicly shaming people who vote sporadically. I'm talking two gross electioneering violations from a campaign that markets itself as the most scientifically advanced in history. With the mailer Team Cruz showed a lack of strategic understanding of the science and compounded their ignorance by apparently making up numbers.

The Growing Controversy

Late last week, voters in Iowa started complaining about a "VOTING VIOLATION" mailer they received from the Ted Cruz campaign. The mailer listed the names of the recipient and several of the recipient's neighbors. Each voter listed also received a voting frequency percentage (usually 55 percent) and a letter grade (usually F).

Voters complained on social media and talk radio. The Iowa Secretary of State denounced the tactic and said the mailer was deceptive. Several voters who received the mailers say they intend to switch their support at the caucus to Trump or Rubio from Cruz.

The tactic shows every sign of being an epic failure in election history. In fact, if Cruz does not win Iowa, the mailer could make it into civics textbooks.

That Misapplied Science

I actually like the idea of sending people their voting history and suggesting you'll do it again after the next election. While it's creepy, the practice is not illegal. But it isn't necessarily effective.

In a 2006 study, researchers sent mailers to voters 11 days prior to Michigan's state primary elections. The study tested four different treatments and had a very large control group who received no mailings related to the study.

Researchers found that turnout was 8.1 percentage points higher among voters who received an aggressive message, similar to the one the Cruz campaign sent in Iowa. An 8.1 point lift in turnout makes voter-shaming the most effective tactic ever tested to drive up voter turnout. The authors of the study noted:

It is important to underscore the magnitude of these effects. The 8.1 percentage-point effect is not only bigger than any mail effect gauged by a randomized experiment; it exceeds the effect of live phone calls (Arceneaux, Gerber, and Green 2006; Nickerson 2006b) and rivals the effect of face-toface contact with canvassers conducting get-out-thevote campaigns (Arceneaux 2005; Gerber and Green 2000; Gerber, Green, and Green 2003). Even allowing for the fact that our experiment focused on registered voters, rather than voting-eligible citizens, the effect of the Neighbors treatment is impressive. An 8.1 percentage-point increase in turnout among registered voters in a state where registered voters comprise 75% of voting-eligible citizens translates into a 6.1 percentage-point increase in the overall turnout rate. By comparison, policy interventions such as Election Day registration or vote-by-mail, which seek to raise turnout by lowering the costs of voting, are thought to have effects on the order of 3 percentage-points or less (Knack 2001).


The remarkable effectiveness of the social pressure appeals contrasts with the relatively modest effects observed in previous studies of the effectiveness of direct mail voter mobilization campaigns.

So why wouldn't Cruz use the tactic?

For a very simple reason: the academic researchers didn't care who people voted for--Ted Cruz does care. 

The Michigan study showed only that voter shaming (or social pressure) works to increase turnout. It does not show that it can increase turnout for a particular candidate in an election where voters have a choice of candidates with similar ideological profiles.

Further, the mailers in the study came from a non-partisan research group, not from a candidate on the ballot. If the Michigan recipients were angered by the mailers, they had no candidate to take their anger out on.

Cruz and Rubio clearly identified the source of their Iowa mailers as their own campaigns, so angry Iowa voters do have a target for their anger: they can caucus against the candidate who sent the mailer.

At least some Iowans say they intend to do just that.

In a general election, this tactic might work. In a race between Cruz and Clinton, it's doubtful anger over a mail piece would drive a voter to switch parties. But in a primary, upset voters have a less-dramatic choice.

Those Phony Scores

Compounding the error, it appears that the Cruz campaign did  not use actual voting histories in tabulating voters' scores, as the mailer indicates. An investigation by Ryan Lizza posted on The New Yorker website indicates that the grades and voting percentages on the mailer were simply made up:

So was the Cruz campaign accurately portraying the voter histories of Iowans? Or did it simply make up the numbers?

It seems to have made them up. Dave Peterson, a political scientist at Iowa State University who is well-acquainted with the research on “social pressure” turnout techniques, received a mailer last week. The Cruz campaign pegged his voting percentage at fifty-five per cent, which seems to be the most common score that the campaign gives out. (All of the neighbors listed on Peterson’s mailer also received a score of fifty-five per cent.)

But Peterson says he's voted in 3 of the last 4 elections, which should equate to 75 percent. And he's even more consistent in voting in local elections.

Lizza did more checking on the numbers:

A source with access to the Iowa voter file told me that he checked several other names on Cruz mailers and that the voting histories of those individuals did not match the scores that the Cruz campaign assigned them in the mailer.

When confronted with evidence that the numbers on the voter-shaming mailers appeared to be fraudulent, the Cruz campaign refused to disclose its sources and methodology for producing the scores, according to Lizza.

photo from The New Yorker

Another apparent deception in the Cruz mailer was the letter grade. The mailer says that the data is publicly available information, but that's not really true. The Iowa Secretary of State's office does keep records of who voted in elections, but state does not assign letter grades. Even if the percentages were based on actual public records, the letter grades were invented by the campaign.

If it turns out the Cruz people really did just make up these voter grades, the backlash could hurt Cruz long after Iowa. It's one thing to attack your opponents in a race--it's another to spread lies about voters themselves.

At a minimum, expect heavy pressure on the Cruz campaign to disclose its grading methodology and which elections contributed to its scores. Or admit to making up the grades from thin air.

Finally, when you try to apply academic research to the real world, make sure you understand how the parameter changes. Changing the source of the mailer from a non-partisan research team to a candidate's campaign, and inventing a letter grade without explaining the methodology, turns a potential tool into a blunt weapon.

And in this case it's a weapon that's more likely to hurt Cruz than to hurt his opponents.