Last week, the Independent Journal Review discovered that Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign was sending out mailers in Iowa that attempted to use social pressure to drive voters to the polls. The mailers, which said “VOTING VIOLATION” at the top, offered recipients a report-card-like evaluation of their and their neighbors’ voting history, complete with real-looking scores and poor resulting grades. The mailers also, of course, encouraged recipients to “CAUCUS ON MONDAY TO IMPROVE YOUR SCORE,” and drag their neighbors along too. They even suggested, as a little extra motivation, that a follow-up grade might be issued following the caucuses.
Written at the bottom, the mailers add that “Voting registration and voter history records are public records distributed by the Iowa Secretary of State and/or county election clerks. This data is not available for use for commercial purposes — use is limited by law. Scores reflect participation in recent elections.”
The only problem is that’s really, really misleading, according to the actual Iowa Secretary of State, Republican Paul Pate, who as BuzzFeed News points out, strongly rebuked the Cruz campaign after learning of the mailers:
Today I was shown a piece of literature from the Cruz for President campaign that misrepresents the role of my office, and worse, misrepresents Iowa election law. Accusing citizens of Iowa of a ‘voting violation’ based on Iowa Caucus participation, or lack thereof, is false representation of an official act. There is no such thing as an election violation related to frequency of voting. Any insinuation or statement to the contrary is wrong and I believe it is not in keeping in the spirit of the Iowa Caucuses.
Pate also explained how voters are never graded based on their participation, and neither the state nor local election officials track caucus participation in the first place. Voter records are also sold to campaigns, not distributed, he said.
The Cruz campaign is generally thought to have one of the the best Iowa ground games in action this cycle, and case-in-point, they used real political science to come up with these mailers. A 2008 study out of Yale indicated that voters were indeed more likely to vote if they felt their participation would be made public after the fact. To get deeper into that, the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel talked to Iowa political scientist Christopher Larimer:
“As a researcher who has done randomized field experiments with get out the vote mailings,” Larimer wrote in an email, “what I can say is that mailings that call attention to an individual’s vote history as well as that of their neighbors’ have been shown to be effective in terms of significantly increasing voter turnout. We draw on norm compliance theory which suggests that publicizing behavior regarding a social norm increases the likelihood of norm compliance.”
That was if the ad was crafted in a smart way. “The Cruz mailing is more negative than anything we have done and has the potential to elicit a negative response or what psychologists call ‘reactance’ or ‘boomerang effect,’” warned Larimer.
And there’s another problem. Though the neighbors’ names on the mailer seem to be real, the participation “scores” are likely fake, as the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza discovered:
Dave Peterson, who happens to be a political scientist at Iowa State University and 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.)
Peterson, who is actually a Hillary Clinton supporter, moved to Iowa in 2009. He told me that he has voted in three out of the last three general elections and in two out of the last three primaries.
“There are other people listed on my mailer who live in my neighborhood that are all different ages, but everyone on this sheet has the same score of fifty-five per cent,” he said. “Some are significantly younger and would have not been eligible to vote in these elections, and others are older and have voted consistently going back years. There is no way to get to us all having the same score.”
So far the Cruz campaign has been anything but repentant, insisting that the mailers are common practice, and that these specific ones used “very narrow” targeting, according to IJReview. And Cruz himself told reporters on Saturday that “I will apologize to nobody for using every tool we can to encourage Iowa voters to come out and vote.” Lizza got campaign spokeswoman Catherine Frazier on the record as well:
“This was a mailer designed from public information and modeled on past successful mailers used by the Iowa GOP to turn out voters, so that we can have as high of a turnout as possible on caucus day,” she said. “I’ll leave it at that.” She did not explain the methodology used nor did she answer my question about whether the numbers were made up.
Sure enough, MoveOn controversially deployed similarly-themed mailers in 2012 to support President Obama’s reelection bid, thought they didn’t go nearly as far as the Cruz campaign’s ones did:
And we all know that Donald Trump never misses an opportunity to point out someone else’s bad press, especially if it reinforces the somewhat routine assertions that Cruz is a bit of a jerk:
Trump has also now referred to the mailers as “One of the most disgraceful things I’ve seen in politics … I think it’s one of the most horrible things in politics,” which coming from Trump is, well, some sort of context.
Exactly which way actual voters will be motivated by the mailers isn’t clear, but there is at least anecdotal evidence that some Republican voters have been turned off of Cruz because of the ads. One woman who received the mailer told Ryan Lizza at the New Yorker that “I’m crippled, so I can’t go to the caucus,” adding that when it comes to being shamed in front of her neighbors, “That’s what you call a bully.”