News

(IPP Policy Brief n°50) Ground work vs. social media: how to best reach voters in French municipal elections?

IPP Policy Brief n°50

February 2020

Authors : Vincent Pons, Vestal McIntyre

Contact : vpons@hbs.edu

Ground work vs. social media: how to best reach voters in French municipal elections?

Summary:

Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are widely considered important, if controversial, channels for candidates and parties around the world to communicate with citizens and win votes. While political parties in France make less use of social media than in the U.S. and other Western democracies, there is disagreement of how it will affect French democracy. But discussions of the promise and peril of social media’s role in elections may miss a higher-order issue: what limited evidence exists suggests that outreach via social media has little effect on voting behavior. By contrast, a series of studies show that face-to-face canvassing has a strong potential to mobilize and persuade voters. These findings give grounds for parties to increase their canvassing efforts, and for the government to enact policies that ease the way for citizens to participate in elections.

Key points:

  • While parties in France invest less money in social media political ads than in the U.S. or U.K. (even taking into account the difference in population), French local officials have as much reach as American local officials.
  • One study in the U.S. showed a Facebook campaign had statistically significant but very small effect on getting people to go vote, while another found that Facebook ads had no effects on voters’ opinions of candidates.
  • By contrast, a series of studies based in France show that door-to-door canvassing has relatively large effects on the three margins where candidates can win votes: (1) by bringing in new voters through registration, (2) by mobilizing existing supporters to get out and vote, and (3) by persuading voters who are undecided to support their candidate.
  • The turnout in municipal elections is smaller than in presidential ones. This may mean that candidates can most effectively win votes by focusing on the second channel, engaging volunteers to motivate supporters to go to the polls.
  • Relying on parties to mobilize voters may exacerbate disparities in political participation. The state could counteract this effect by enacting policies encouraging and facilitating participation, such as automatic registration.