New Research Measures the Effectiveness of Ballot Initiative Campaigns

“Economic organizations can influence initiative outcomes…particularly because ballot initiatives are often described as giving the people, not interest groups, direct democratic power to decide important policy issues,” write the authors.

November 6, 2012

By Jenny Li Fowler and Doug Gavel | JFK School, Harvard University

Voters all across the country were deluged with political campaign ads, flyers and phone calls during this election year, and a new Harvard Kennedy School Working Paper concludes that those efforts to change voters’ minds often do have a profound effect on the outcome of statewide ballot initiatives.
The paper, titled “Are Ballot Initiative Outcomes Influenced by the Campaigns of Independent Groups? A Precinct-Randomized Field Experiment,” is co-authored by Harvard Kennedy School Assistant Professor Todd Rogers and Joel A. Middleton of New York University.
In order to test their theories about the effectiveness of ballot initiative campaigns, Rogers and Middleton analyzed data relating to voter behavior in the state of Oregon during the 2008 General Election. Twelve ballot initiatives appeared on the statewide ballot that year, and an advocacy organization called Defend Oregon attempted to sway likely voters’ opinions through a ballot guide, which contained specific positions on each initiative.

The researchers conducted a randomized controlled trial to assess the causal impact of these campaigns. This was a methodological first and allows the authors to make causal claims.

Rogers and Middleton found that the outreach was very successful – effecting voting results for ten of the twelve initiatives. “For two initiatives, it appears that effects were large enough to have altered the election outcome; the initiatives were rejected but would have passed were it not for the ballot guides,” the authors write.

The researchers argue that the research holds some important lessons for policymakers.
“Economic organizations can influence initiative outcomes… particularly because ballot initiatives are often described as giving the people, not interest groups, direct democratic power to decide important policy issues. As such, our findings may provide fodder for those who wish to regulate campaign funding,” write the authors.

Todd Rogers’ research attempts to bridge the gap between intention and action. Some topics he has studied include the cognitive and social factors that influence election participation, and how time-inconsistent preferences can be leveraged to increase support for future-minded policies and choices.



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