Has Social Science Taken Over Electoral Campaigns and Should We Regret It?

in French Politics, Culture & Society
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Elections and political campaigns make for a fascinating research playground. They correspond to Marcel Mauss’s definition of fait social total, a social phenomenon that involves all individuals and reveals something about them all. They take place frequently and nearly everywhere in the world, providing an ideal vantage point for comparing societies across time and space. They are documented with an increasing amount of data, starting with disaggregated electoral results. These features alone would suffice to explain the central importance of elections in the social sciences, from history and political science to economics and psychology. But a recent evolution makes the study of elections and campaigns perhaps even more appealing today: in almost no other fields are the recommendations of social scientists followed so closely and so rapidly. The first milestone in this trend was a study conducted during the November 1998 general elections in New Haven by two Yale political scientists, Alan Gerber and Donald Green, which compared the effects of door-to-door canvassing, phone calls, and mailings.2 This article launched a large experimental literature investigating which campaign techniques could most effectively increase voter turnout or sway undecided voters. Candidates were quick to apply the most recent findings to their own campaigns, even hiring some of their authors as strategy advisers