How friendship can boost voter turnout | Interview with Dr. Donald Green

How friendship can boost voter turnout | Interview with Dr. Donald Green

We met with Donald P. Green, Columbia University’s highly influential political scientist, to talk about his research on elections, COVID-19’s disruptiveness, and the powerful influence of friendships on getting out the vote.

Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of Academic­, and professor of physics at Wake Forest University, and Dr. Donald Green range from the nature of academic research into media consumer and voter perceptions to how even an established researcher can change emphasis in mid-career. Political mavens, students, and academics of all disciplines will find the conversation enlightening.

The more personal, heartfelt, and authentic, the more effective something is.” – Donald P. Green

One of the more illuminating insights to emerge from the conversation is Green’s finding on the powerful influence of friendship. “The more personal, heartfelt, and authentic, the more effective something is,” Green states. “You could send somebody an automated text message and get them to move just a little bit in terms of their probability of voting, but if you actually text a friend and say, ‘Don, I’m really counting on you to vote, this is going to be a historic election, not one to sit out, ’ you’ll raise my chances of voting considerably.”

Green adds, “I think that kind of friend-to-friend model of engaging voters and stimulating turnout is especially pertinent now under COVID conditions where getting to people through impersonal means is not that easy.”

Green and Macosko cover COVID-19′s disruption of activism, door-to-door canvassing, and other typical expectations of a presidential campaign. The two conclude the wide-ranging talk with Green’s thoughts on the Kamala Harris pick for vice president.


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Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

00:21 Accidental PoliSci

Jed Macosko: Hi, I am Dr. Jed Macosko at Academic­ and Wake Forest University, and we have another wonderful guest today on our little interview show here. It’s Professor Don Green, and he has lots to say about how he got interested in his field when he was a young person, and what has happened since then.

So why don’t you start at the very beginning, Don. How did you get interested in what you’re doing now as a career?

Donald Green: Years ago, way back when — the beginning of the Reagan revolution — I just inadvertently, with no particular plan, signed up to be an intern in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. And I arrived at the ripe old age of 19 as a political science major.

And it was sort of funny because in my first week there, the legislative director for the committee said, “You know, Green, you could do the intern scut work, or you could just keep your mouth shut and follow me around all summer. So it’s kinda up to you.”

And I thought, “Well, I’ll take the latter job!”

And so, I was basically like a fly on the wall for the whole summer while the Reagan revolution and attempts to slow it down in the House unfolded. And that was a fascinating experience, and I came back thinking, “You know, I can do this for a job!”

Jed: How did you get into political science as a major, as 19-year-old? You’d already figured that that was your major? And what led to that?

Don: I was a history and political science major. So I was in that sort of lemming-like furrow on the way to law school.

Jed: Okay.

Don: And I was planning on going to law school and…

Jed: Being a lawyer? Just a regular old lawyer?

Don: I think so.

Jed: Okay.

Don: Add it was obvious that my heart was not in it, and it took a long time for certain parents to kind of accept that this was not gonna happen. But that’s okay, things worked out very well, I think, in the end.

Jed: Yeah.

Don: And I think I would have been an okay lawyer … but because my habits of mind are much more that of an academic I am glad I made the decision I did.

Jed: Yeah. Well, do you think your parents would be proud of you that you are now the number one most influential political scientist ever in the world right now? [chuckle]

Don: No, I think that they would surely think of it as a computer glitch, there’s something wrong with the algorithm!

02:38 Clarifying Interests

Jed: Yeah, maybe that’s what they would say! [chuckle]

Well, okay, so you got interested as a 19-year-old and you realized you could do this for a living, and then — what happened that led you to the specific area of political science that you are known for and so influential in?

Don: That’s the further irony of it. I went to University of California, Berkeley for no particular reason other than my middle brother was at Berkeley. He’s now a philosophy professor.

Jed: Oh, okay.

Don: I went to Berkeley and I went there to study political philosophy, of all things, and even started down the track of doing that: I took the PhD exam in political philosophy. And then it was in a class of political behavior taught by Jack Citrin (ultimately my dissertation advisor), that I became a “running dog of empiricism” — much more interested in how it is that people came to think the things that they did.

And gradually, my interests shifted in the direction of political behavior research. I was sort of a survey research guy, I had an office at the Survey Research Center at Berkeley — now defunct, but there it was — and that’s what I did for about the first five or so years of my career. And then I gradually shifted over to my current focus, which is field experimentation in social sciences.

You know, I think that was the move that, in some sense, changed my whole academic outlook.

03:57 Doing Field Research

Jed: And what does it mean for you to do the field research? Because we’ve been talking to a lot of political scientists: some of them deal just with numbers, just with survey data, others of them are more like anthropologists, they go out there and they talk to people. And we’ve actually had interviews with a lot of anthropology professors, and obviously they do that kind of field work.

So, tell us a little bit about how that shift happened after five years of doing more of the “survey thing” to going out into the field.

Don: Well, my close collaborator, Alan Gerber, and I began to debate What kinds of bedrock knowledge exist in political science? What are the really well-supported empirical foundations on which we build our theories?

And essentially, Alan and I … I remember the day we were doing it: we literally argued for hours about every proposition we could think about! And I started off more optimistic than he was, but at the end, he really won me over.

And we launched an experiment in 1998 to get at, really, the most fundamental empirical question: To what extent does encouraging people to vote cause them to turn out? It sounds like a pretty obvious thing to study, but really, very few people had studied it in the decades leading up to our study.

And I think once we saw the kinds of things that could be learned from a randomized trial conducted in a real-world setting, it opened up many more questions, many more research opportunities — and lots of unexpected things happened.

When you have a research finding, in this case, that door-to-door canvassing worked well, but that telemarketing calls didn’t work so well, you become the little darling of all the people who say, “That’s right, we should be doing more canvassing!” And that leads to many more experiments, and now hundreds and hundreds of experiments in, not only on turn-out, but also on persuasion, on all sorts of things, including mass media, not just in the United States, but all over the place.

You know, I feel as though I can never really return back to my old, rather insular “download some data and analyze it” past mode of doing research.

Jed: So your roots are in “download data and analyze it” from those first four years you spent looking at surveys. And yet, you’ve moved into this on-the-ground field -research, door-to-door even in canvassing.

So, how do those two things interact now? You say you always come back to your roots of downloading and analyzing, but you’re out there doing the field work, so tell us more about how those interplay.

Don: Well, I’d say that most recently, I’ve melded my early days as a survey guy with my more current mode as a field experiment guy, insofar as I’ve been doing randomized experiments in East Africa on the effects of mass media exposure on social attitudes and behaviors. And what has been fun about that is to go to these locations, for example, in rural Uganda or rural Tanzania, and to talk to villagers about issues like violence against women or teacher absenteeism and to get a sense of their perspective, and also to, in some since revisit the golden age of survey research where people had never been surveyed before, and where people are not necessarily drumming their fingers, counting the minutes.

You know, they’re very pleased to talk to you about social issues. In many cases, it’s the first time anyone has ever expressed interest in what they think. So that part has really been fascinating and it’s of course opened up a totally new part of the world to me, but also a new way of thinking and doing things. And the fact that the response rate is 98%, means it’s a welcome departure from the almost intractable problems of interviewing in the West.

Jed: Interesting. So you yourself fly over to East Africa, go to different villages, talking to people, surveying people. Who helps you with that, so that you can get enough data to be meaningful?

Don: Well, in this particular case, it’s field organizations. In this case, Innovations for Poverty Action, which was founded, actually, by a colleague and friend of mine, Dean Karlan , and they’ve essentially got offices in the variety of countries, not just in East Africa. And they have been instrumental in orchestrating the — in having a professionalized group of survey takers, enumerators. And then I’ve also had just the most amazing graduate students and colleagues working on these projects with me. So I’ve learned as much from them as I have [inaudible]…

Jed: Yeah. So wow, that must be really exciting! So in combination with your own conversations with East Africans, and then all of the data you get back from these professionals who’ve been trained to do surveys, your graduate students who go — I assume they go over there as well and do surveys — you’ve just learned a lot. And is that just in the last few years that you’ve been doing that project in East Africa?

Don: That’s right. It goes back to a dissertation that I advised way back in the roughly 2007 period, but I never was the person to be on the ground to do it myself until my very brilliant and accomplished former student, now a professor at Princeton, Elizabeth Levy Paluck , couldn’t do it on the ground because she was having a baby at the time. So I thought, “Well, you know, now it’s time for me to go do it.” And it’s really, really fascinating. And now that I’ve done it, I’ve continued to do it. So I started off in Uganda. I did two, three studies there, and now I’m on my fourth study in Tanzania — and it’s really fascinating.

Jed: Wow. That is really cool! So were those first studies in Uganda the first time you had gone out and done survey research for a while? Had you taken a break from actually being on the ground and asking people questions or…?

Don: Yeah, I’ve certainly done lots of American politics-related survey work, lots and lots of that — especially associated with experiments on campaigns and elections. But this was the first time that I’d actually gone to do data collection in East Africa. And it was just a fascinating experience to do one-on-one in-depth interviews and then to build from there to an actual survey that was closed-ended, to do multiple waves of surveys, not only to interview villagers but also members of the family and their extended communities. To learn how to sample. We use Google Earth to take photographs of these villages and figure out all of the radii that would encompass the structures that we could see from outer space. So it’s really….

Jed: Oh, wow, that is so cool! So you’ve done a lot in the United States, this is the first time you went to East Africa.

But was it the kind of thing — I know for me as a professor of physics, I did a lot of the hands-on research, I’m an experimentalist, I was doing the actual experiments myself for a number of years; but then graduate students kind of took over and I’m just in my office writing for grants and things like that…. Is that what happened to you prior to that first trip to Uganda?

Don: I think that it’s true that increasingly, I was reliant on post-docs and graduate students, and then I think that a variety of things — some not so great — caused me to get more intimately involved in the data collection process myself. But also I was drawn in by the opportunities that were afforded to me by wonderful students, eager funders. There are lots of people who wanted to know about the conditions under which people are persuaded by messages, including media messages.

And so, now the idea of studying media messaging systematically, has gone from a kind of sideline of mine to really something that I’m really primarily focused on.

12:08 Media Messaging Studies

Jed: Okay, so that’s become your primary focus: to survey people and how they’re responding to mass media, multimedia, different forms of messaging…?

Don: But not just messaging that’s happening in the world, but messaging that has been randomly configured. I mean, that’s the idea: that, for example, in the Uganda study, we rolled out first in 56 villages, and then in 112 villages a randomized trial, which people were exposed to messages on, say, violence against women or teacher absenteeism or abortion stigma, or some other topic. And that’s the thing that really makes it exciting: you’re not just asking what do people think and correlating it with the things to which they’ve been exposed. You’re actually randomizing what they’re exposed to.

Jed: Wow, that is really cool, and that is truly unique, I think probably — not to you, but just in my mind — to be able to go in and do that to a village.

So tell us more what that looks like? Do you show up with ways to get the media to them if the village doesn’t already have a way of getting that? Tell us more about the mechanics of how that happens.

Don: The mechanics are rather interesting insofar as these are very poor areas. They have no running water, they have no paved roads, they have no electricity. Only about one in, say, seven villagers has access to a smartphone, so their TV exposure is relatively limited. So the way we did it was, we took advantage of a thing that is pretty much ubiquitous throughout rural Africa, and that is the video hall — in Uganda it’d be called a bibanda. And the idea is, that these videos halls are places where you’d pay roughly the equivalent of 5 or 10 cents to watch about two hours of TV. Well, we deployed a bunch of Western movies as a film festival for four to six weeks and invited people to come for free. And then our messages were shown during the commercial breaks. And they were filmed, interestingly, in Uganda, on location, written by local screen writers.

Jed: Wow.

Don: And it was the first time that a local villager would see a movie actually in their setting, in the native language.

Jed: Wow! And those were the little videos and movies that had the messages about teacher absenteeism, violence against women, and then you randomized it in terms of which villages got to see which types of movies.

Don: Yes.

Jed: Wow, fascinating! Unbelievable.

Don: And we tried to have a very light touch. This was not one of those kind of media studies where you show something and then you immediately interview them afterwards. Because I find that kind of obtrusive style of research very unconvincing. And so we did a general population survey of the village, regardless of whether people showed up to the event, two months later.

Jed: Wow.

Don: It was unconnected to the event.

Jed: That is such cool research, I have to say. I mean, I’m not a social scientist, but it’s just neat how you were able to do a controlled experiment in that kind of setting. And just getting back to just understanding your career path. You took this job in Uganda because your colleague was having a child, and it put you face-to-face with what was going on in the actual field work.

Had you done stuff where you were in the actual field work just prior to that in the United States, and had you been doing it on the ground? Or, as I said before, were you more stuck in your office while your post-docs and grad students were out there?

Don: Well, certainly I’ve done a lot of data collection in American public opinion work. And that typically involves phone surveys and [inaudible]. But the on-the-ground, face-to-face stuff is relatively rare for me.

Jed: Yeah. I bet it would be. So, has it been really fun for you as an academic? Gosh, I bet you…

Don: ’Cause I think that all the infirmities of current surveys don’t necessarily apply to East Africa. Other things apply, but not that. I think one advantage of talking to people who are not surveyed to death is that they find it a very interesting and engaging conversation. They think hard about their responses.

Jed: Yeah.

Don: They’ve often never had to translate what they think into a response.

Jed: Interesting. Wow, fascinating! So, is it the kind of thing that you did that one first one in Uganda, and you were really looking forward to the next one, and the next one? When did these start? What year did you start that very first one?

Don: Well, the one with Betsy Levy-Paluck, I think was 2006 and ’07.

Jed: Okay.

Don: The one that I started was 2014 and ’15, ’16. And then, kept right on rolling into Tanzania.

Jed: Okay.

Don: So those studies, actually, the ones from Uganda, are just being published this year. And in Tanzania, we’re very much in the hopper.

Jed: Wow, that’s really cool. So it was actually quite a big gap from the very first trip you took to Uganda, to then when you went back the second time on your own sort of thing. Sounded like there was a…?

Don: Sorry, the one with Betsy, that wasn’t Uganda. That was Rwanda.

Jed: Oh, in Rwanda! So you did Rwanda with Betsy starting in 2007?

Don: Yes.

Jed: And then did you just keep going back year-after-year to different places?

Don: No, no, no. Remember, she’s doing all the field work until she has the baby and then it’s Don’s turn to go because there’s no Betsy. Betsy is totally amazing, because she learned Kinyarwanda, she could hang out with the local people. She was beloved and famous throughout the country.

Jed: Wow.

Don: For me, I’m just … I don’t even rate on that scale.


Jed: Okay, so, that makes more sense now. You went to Rwanda one time?

Don: No, no, no. Not even that. Betsy does everything in Rwanda. For me, I’m just back in New Haven checking in with — we had all kinds of fun things to do in New Haven because Betsy, for example, needed money. In those days to wire money to Kigali was not a trivial thing! We had to figure out — the whole business office was called into service. Anyway, it was Betsy doing the on-the-ground work. And then, it was only when Betsy couldn’t go to do this particular job that I….

Jed: Okay. And she couldn’t do the particular job that was in Uganda then?

Don: Yes.

Jed: Okay.

Don: She couldn’t collaborate on that project.

Jed: I see, I get it. I get it. So you took it over completely, and that’s when you started in 2014, ’15, ’16, and then moved into Tanzania. Okay, very good.

Sometimes these things takes a while to map out. And I think it’s important for people to understand that, here you are already established in your career, and yet you turned over a brand new leaf just in 2000, really, 2014, is when you first got there and did it on your own. And it’s been a lot of fun for you. So, I guess, that’s encouraging for the younger people that watch this interview: that as they pick their career, there are always gonna be new surprises on the horizon, down the road, that can open up whole new dimensions of whatever career they go into.

Don: That’s right. I think that in particular … there’s a kind of restlessness associated with being an academic and some people just are constantly churning with projects and ideas. And I really enjoy the social aspects of working collaboratively because that has me going in all kinds of crazy directions.

20:00 Get Out the Vote

Jed: Well, it seems like you’ve gone in a really cool direction!

Now, getting it back — we’ve looked at this one project that you’ve really focused on — getting it back to the bigger picture of Don Green and what he’s up to. Does this stuff that goes on in Uganda and Tanzania represent the majority of your scholarship now starting in 2014 on, or is this sort of one piece of your bigger scholarship that we just happen to be talking about in this interview?

Don: I’d say it’s one piece. I mean, it’s certainly a piece that I love, and I’m really engaged by it. But I’d say to the typical person who’s likely to run into this video, they’d go, “Oh, Green, he’s a scholar of, basically, voter turnout in campaigns and elections in the United States,” and….

Jed: Okay, so that’s what you’re really, mainly known for, and you continue that work to this day, and you’ll be involved in the 2020 election and talking about what’s gonna turn out the vote and giving recommendations of whatever you wanna do.

And so well, let’s go there: talk about what’s going to get out the vote in your studies that has shown to be helpful to people who are trying to get their constituency out and vote?

Don: Well, I’d say that to a first approximation: the summary of hundreds of field experiments is basically, the more personal and heartfelt and authentic, the more effective something is.

Jed: Okay.

Don: You know, you can send somebody an automated text message and get them to move just a little bit in terms of their probability of voting. But if you actually text a friend and say, “Don, I’m really counting on you to vote. This election is not … this is gonna be a historic election — not one to sit out,” you know?

Jed: Yeah.

Don: You’ll raise my chances voting — considerably. And I think that that kind of friend-to-friend model of engaging voters and stimulating turnout is especially pertinent now, under COVID conditions, where getting to people through impersonal means is not that easy.

Jed: No, it sure isn’t. Do you have any thoughts about how it’s all gonna go down with COVID? And with campaigning towards the election? I mean, it’s just gonna be so different, won’t it? And will all your research be meaningless in some ways, or is it still gonna be basically the same thing just in a different format?

Don: Well, I think that there are a few things that are swirling that could make it unpredictable — especially things having to do with the integrity of the election, or things that call into question the integrity of the election. I have no idea where that would lead.

But if you said, well, what’s the election going to be about if there is no door-to-door canvassing and if there is no, there’s nothing like a campaign rally, where you can’t even really hold fundraiser events or activist events? Then presumably, the world then turns to friend-to-friend organizing models, because friends are still able to contact each other without being blocked. And they are quite effective when they do contact each other.

So that kind of decentralized model, which is not really typical for the United States, might be something that’s thrown into service in short order over the next few months. On the other hand, I expect that we’ll see the usual avalanche of TV.

Jed: Oh, gosh. I’m not looking forward to that. [chuckle]

Don: Well, there won’t be any shortage of that. But I don’t think that that’s necessarily something that I expect to precipitate high voter turnout. I think high voter turnout is likely, in this case — again, assuming that the election is administered in a sensible way — because both sides are armed for bear, they recognize that this is a turning point of an election. And I’d say that interest in the election is extraordinarily high.

Jed: Yeah, definitely so and it’s so interesting that as we are filming this interview, compared to the one previously that we interviewed Professor Nadia Brown from Purdue University, we didn’t know who the Democratic vice presidential candidate was going to be. And now we do!

So how does that change things in your mind, just from an hour ago ’till now? Is there any new development that we can be thinking about as we close out our interview right now?

Don: It’s really … again, it sets in motion a very interesting and somewhat unpredictable kind of gyroscope, you know. To have a Black female vice presidential candidate presumably overcomes one of Hillary Clinton’s weakest points in 2016: her inability to mobilize Black voters. Not just to mobilize them, but to get them to vote for her and to do it with enthusiasm. And so if Biden can overcome that, he will overcome that infirmity.

On the other hand, part of Hillary Clinton’s problem in 2016, especially in battleground states, was her soft support among non-college-educated whites. And so the question is whether they now fall more in the arms of Donald Trump than they otherwise would have in the absence of this particular nomination. So it’s an interesting gambit. It’s also interesting because California is nowhere near a battleground state. And so this is very different from the nomination of Cain to deliver Virginia, because it’s not necessarily her role to deliver her home state.

25:31 Sign Off

Jed: No, no, it doesn’t seem like it, but should be interesting!

And we are so honored to have been able to speak to the most influential political scientist today, according to this “computer glitch” that you were talking about! [chuckle] But no, seriously, we are so, so thankful to have this good perspective on what it means to do research in political science, on-the-ground field research like you’ve described to us so nicely, and also some of your perspective on what does turn out the vote and what we should be looking forward to in this 2020 election.

So thank you so much, Professor Green, we really appreciate it!

Don: Thank you very much for having me.

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