How Democrats Can Learn From the Past and Win Virginia

Photo by Elliott Stallion on Unsplash

By Brett Major

With November quickly approaching, all eyes are on Virginia. Given the current volatile political climate, many campaigns and organizations — such as Sister District, flippable, and Spread the Vote — are eager utilize the energy and momentum behind the resistance movement to get out the vote (GOTV) in Virginia. Unfortunately, harnessing this energy is a nuanced task and sometimes, unbridled enthusiasm and outreach can actually be detrimental for GOTV strategies. As behavioral researchers, we are studying what went right (and wrong) in recent GOTV efforts. So how can Democrats make sure they avoid a loss in Virginia? We surveyed residents of Georgia during their special election and here’s what we learned.

In our June survey of 150 residents from GA6, 83% of respondents were contacted by at least one campaign. Nearly 1 out of 5 respondents reported being contacted by the Ossoff campaign more than 10 times. Many of us assume more voter contact leads to more voter turnout. Indeed, this association turned up in our data: people who received 4+ contacts from campaigns were significantly more likely to vote than people who received 1–3 contacts or no contacts at all. However, this relationship is not necessarily causal and it’s also possible that campaigns more frequently contacted people who were likely to vote. But even if it is the case that more voter contact leads to more voter turnout, our research has uncovered some reasons for concern about potentially excessive amounts of voter contact.

Too much voter contact may result in more confusion about the campaign’s message.

Our results indicate that people who received 1–3 contacts had a clearer understanding of the Democrats’ message than people who received no contact at all. However, people who received 4+ contacts reported having a less clear understanding of the Democrats message relative to those who received 1–3 contacts. One possible explanation for these findings is that voter contact from multiple sources (e.g., campaigns, political organizations, local volunteers) may actually muddy the overall GOTV effort by causing confusion about the campaign’s message.

Too much voter contact may decrease the likelihood that a person takes future political actions.

We found a similar pattern with the number of contacts a voter received and their interest in taking future political actions. That is, people who received 1–3 contacts reported more interest in taking future political actions (e.g., calling an elected official, attending a town hall meeting, donating to a campaign) than people who received no contact at all. However, people who received 4+ contacts reported less interest in taking future political actions than people who received 1–3 contacts. This finding may be attributable a psychological construct called moral licensing, which happens when people do something good and decide they’ve done enough, suppressing future action.

To add context to these findings, it is useful to understand that, especially in the last few weeks of an election, campaigns target strong Democratic voters to ensure the “base” turns out. Thus these findings are particularly problematic because the people who ultimately ended up feeling confused by the Democrats’ message and less likely to take future political actions were their own base voters. It should go without saying that this cannot continue to happen if Democrats want to win in the long run.

Luckily, there are solutions to these problems. Here’s our roadmap for how Democrats can learn from the past and win in Virginia and beyond.

  1. Work together to coordinate GOTV efforts. While voter contact is certainly important to GOTV efforts, too much voter contact might actually be counterproductive or lead to undesirable side-effects like voter confusion and reduced interest in taking future political actions. A solution to this problem is to coordinate efforts across campaigns, political organizations, and local volunteers to ensure voter outreach is clear, uniform, and kept to a reasonable number of contacts.
  2. Look beyond the current election. Winning Virginia should not have to come at the cost of undermining future political goals. More attention should be paid to turning citizens into lifelong voters and political participants instead of a short-sighted focus on soliciting their vote in the next election without consideration of how these efforts might affect their future political actions. Going forward, factors such as moral licensing and psychological burnout should be considered carefully.
  3. Step up the data game. Relying on intuitions or anecdotal evidence can be misleading, so taking the time to measure the effectiveness of GOTV or other political strategies is well worth the time and the energy. Designing and conducting an experiment is really the best way for a campaign or organization to know if their strategies truly work.

CitizenBe is a non-profit group of social and behavioral scientists that works to create and sustain impactful political participation. We help groups become more effective through evidence-based research and testing. If you’d like more info, please reach out to us at