In the following blog post, the authors summarize the forthcoming American Journal of Political Science article titled “Paths of Recruitment: Rational Social Prospecting in Petition Canvassing”:
When U.S. Representative Gwen Moore (D-WI) prepared her 2008 reelection bid as Wisconsin’s first black member of Congress (representing Milwaukee’s 4th Congressional District), her campaign faced the task of gathering nominating paper signatures for submission to Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board. While this might have been an opportunity to travel throughout the largely Democratic district performing campaign outreach and mobilization, the canvassers working on Moore’s behalf took a different approach: they went primarily to her most supportive neighborhoods, which also happened to be the part of the congressional district that Moore had represented in the State Senate until 2004. Unsurprisingly, canvassers focused their attention on majority-black neighborhoods throughout Northwest Milwaukee. As time passed, the canvassers relied increasingly on signatures gathered from Moore’s core constituency.
The geographically and socially bounded canvassing carried out by Moore’s campaign is suggestive of a broader trend in how political recruiters search for support, and it holds lessons that expand upon prevailing models of political re
cruitment. Political recruiters do not only seek out supporters who share common attributes and socioeconomic backgrounds. They also act in response to their geographic milieu, and they update their choices in light of experience.
In our paper “Paths of Recruitment: Rational Social Prospecting in Petition Canvassing“, we develop these insights while elaborating a new model of political recruitment that draws lessons from the experiences of petition canvassers in multiple geographic and historical contexts. We test our model using original data we gathered in the form of geocoded signatory lists from a 2005-2006 anti-Iraq War initiative in Wisconsin and an 1839 antislavery campaign in New York City. Examining the sequence of signatures recorded in these petitions, we have been able to reconstruct canvassers’ recruitment methods– whether they walked the petition door-to-door or went to a central location or meeting place to gather signatures – as well as the path they travelled when they did go door-to-door. We find that canvassers were substantially more likely to go walking in search of signatures in neighborhoods where residents’ demographic characteristics were similar to their own. In the case of middle-class, predominantly white Wisconsin anti-war canvassers, this meant staying in predominantly white and middle class neighborhoods when going door-to-door. Furthermore, the act of canvassing appeared to follow a rational process where canvassers displayed sensitivity to their costs. For example, in areas where canvassers struggled to find signatures, they were more likely to quit searching.
Understanding how political recruiters find supporters for a political candidate or cause is crucial because recruitment determines who participates in politics. If canvasser strategies reach only a limited set of recruits, then swathes of Americans may be less likely to participate. Our paper sheds new light on the campaign dynamics that feed this inequality.
About the Authors: Clayton Nall is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Stanford University. Benjamin Schneer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Florida State University. Daniel Carpenter is Allie S. Freed Professor of Government in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Director of Social Sciences at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. Their paper “Paths of Recruitment: Rational Social Prospecting in Petition Canvassing” is now available for Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.