In 2012, U.S. journalist Sasha Issenberg wrote a remarkable book about elections called The Victory Lab.
It told how a Democratic Party political consultant and direct-mail expert named Hal Malchow spent years refining how to improve turnout in elections.
He sent a million letters to people he believed to be Democrat-leaning residents of Colorado in the final days of a hotly contested Senate campaign in 2010. But these were not the usual hard-nosed political pitches.
"The folded pieces of laser-printed white paper were designed to be ugly, with a return address referring to a sender whose name voters were unlikely to recognize," Issenberg wrote. "The sender thanks the recipient by first name for having voted in 2008, and then said she looked forward to being able to express such gratitude again after the coming elections."
There was no mention of the candidates or any of the issues.
"The letter, dispassionate in tone and startlingly personal in content, might have inspired most recipients to dispatch it to a trash can with no strong feeling other than being oddly unsettled by its arrival," Issenberg added.
One letter may have won an election
The Democrats were slaughtered in the 2010 midterm elections. But in Colorado, the Democratic Senate candidate, Michael Bennet, pulled off an upset, beating his Republican opponent by 15,000 votes.
Malchow experienced similar success many years earlier while helping an Oregon Democratic candidate for the Senate, Ron Wyden. The consultant focused one late-campaign direct-mail pitch in neighbourhoods with the lowest education levels. According to Issenberg's book, that's because people with less education "do not follow politics closely and tune in to races just before election day".
Further research revealed to Malchow that the highest percentage of undecided voters in these low-education neighbourhoods were those between 18 to 44 years of age.
"Malchow broke down that group by family size, and hit gold: those in neighbourhoods with the most children were undecided at a rate of 58 percent," Issenberg wrote. "He thought these young independents in neighbourhoods with lots of kids but few graduate degrees resembled a politically familiar bloc: the culturally conservative working-class voters now known as Reagan Democrats."
As a result, Malchow focused his message on them, which was a more effective use of the candidate's campaign budget. Wyden won the election by paying special attention to these so-called "low-information voters".
Data mining helps parties
As Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper prepares to visit Gov.-Gen. David Johnston on Sunday (August 2) to launch the next federal election campaign, the media will make a big deal about the opinion polls.
But increasingly, elections are won and lost over which party has mastered techniques to persuade potential supporters to turn up at the polls and vote.
One way is through sophisticated direct-mail campaigns that leave citizens feeling an obligation to vote. Issenberg reported in The Victory Lab that Barack Obama's campaign has sent emails to its supporters reminding them that they had made a commitment to vote.
Another modern technique is data mining. Political parties launch online petition drives on specific issues, harvesting people's email addresses. Then these parties send appeals around these issues in the period leading up to voting day.
The recent Lower Mainland transit and transportation plebiscite offered a splendid opportunity for data mining. The No campaign website urged people to pledge to vote and encouraged them to supply their first and last name, email, and postal code.
If anyone on the No side had read The Victory Lab, there's a reasonable likelihood that those who made the pledge were urged to follow up on that commitment, thereby increasing voter turnout.
Harper targets low-information voters
Meanwhile, the Conservative government recently sent large cheques to parents across the country based on the number of kids in the family. Approximately $3 billion was mailed out earlier this month.
Going forward, parents will receive $160 per month for every child under six years old and $60 per month for children six to 17.
You can bet that a lot of this money has ended up in the pockets of low-information voters. The NDP has pledged not to eliminate this enhanced benefit, primarily because it doesn't want to alienate parents across the country.
Issenberg's book noted how younger parents who don't pay attention to politics and without graduate degrees likely swayed a close Senate election in Oregon.
Is it any coincidence that these are precisely the voters that Harper's government is buying off to try to achieve a similar result in Canada?