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Study Finds Postcard Writing a Powerful Political Engagement Tool in Virginia’s 2017 House of Delegates Elections

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by Robbin Warner, Postcards4va

Postcard writing has gained momentum within the resistance movement both to contact elected officials and to connect with voters. Whereas modern day campaign mailers are slick and mass produced, the hallmark of the resistance postcards is their low-tech and personal approach. Each card is a handwritten, individual note crafted by a grassroots activist, many of whom are new to activism.

Little research exists on the use of personal notes in campaigns and even less on the impact on the writers. Social psychology research has found mental health benefits from writing, especially in dealing with traumatic events (Pennebaker & Chung 2007). Research also shows that sharing positive social experiences with others promotes feelings of meaning and purpose in life (Major, Lundberg & Frederickson, 2017), which may have direct implications for sustaining volunteer engagement in political activities.

With these results in mind, Postcards4VA (a grassroots Virginia group) and CitizenBe (behavioral science research firm) surveyed 619 volunteers who had committed to participating in Postcard4VA’s 100 Postcards Challenge for the 2017 Virginia election to study the impact of writing postcards on the civic engagement of the writers.

Participants reported on:

  1. whether they wrote postcards alone or with others (such as at postcard writing parties)
  2. the positive emotions they felt during postcard writing
  3. their perceptions of how impactful their efforts would be in having an impact on the political system
  4. level of self-identification with political participation
  5. their intentions to engage in future political actions

The 100 Postcards Challenge resulted in over 137,469 postcards being mailed in support of 28 Virginia House of Delegate candidates involving some 1600 registered volunteers. The true number of volunteers is likely much larger because many engaged friends and family who were not officially registered with the Challenge to help write their 100 cards.

The study found that the social and emotional elements of writing postcards can increase civic engagement in terms of emotional outlook, scope of involvement, and likelihood of continued participation.

Key Study Findings:

Volunteers who felt more positively about their postcard writing experience reported greater willingness to take future political action. Self-reported positive emotions during postcard writing was significantly associated with lower levels of burnout, greater perceived impact on the political system, and greater intention to take future political action. (Chart 1)

Volunteers who teamed up with others to write postcards reported greater willingness to take future political action. People who wrote postcards in social settings (such as postcard parties) reported less burnout, greater belief that their actions would have an impact on the political system, and greater intentions to take political action in the future. (Chart 2)

Future political engagement is more likely when political action is more closely with self-identity. Reported self-identification with political participation was significantly associated with greater enjoyment from postcard writing, less burnout, greater social closeness with other volunteers, greater perceived impact of their actions on the political system, and greater intention to take future political action. (Chart 3)

Winning may change memories of past volunteer experiences and make people more likely to participate again in the future. In our study, some participants completed the survey before the election and some completed the survey after the election (and thus were aware of sweeping Democratic victories). We found that participants who completed the survey after the election (compared to those who completed it before the election) reported greater levels of positive emotions during postcard writing, greater perceived impact on the political system, less burnout, and greater social closeness to other volunteers. We speculate that knowledge of Democratic victories may have enhanced how people remembered their volunteer experiences.  

Additional Findings:

  • Postcard writers also engaged in other political activities. (Charts 4 and 5)
  • Postcard writers believed their postcards would have an impact.
  • Almost all postcard writers were 35 and older with 48% being over 55. This profile matches those motivated for political action after the 2016 election, the resistance.
  • Postcard writers were college educated, many with advanced degrees.
  • Over 70% of postcard writers participated in the Women’s March.
  • All postcard writers of voting age were registered to vote.
  • Participants expressed a strong interest in writing postcards for future campaigns.

References Cited

Major, B. C., Lundberg, K.B., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2017). Health and wellbeing correlates of perceived positivity resonance: Evidence from trait and episode-level assessments. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. (Revision invited)

Pennebaker JW, Chung CK. 2007. Expressive writing, emotional upheavals, and health. In Handbook of Health Psychology, ed. H Friedman, R Silver, pp. 263–84. New York: Oxford University Press.

______

CitizenBe (citizenbe.org) 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.

Postcards4VA (postcards4va.com) is a grassroots postcard initiative dedicating to flipping Virginia’s elected officials blue.

For more information, contact Robbin Warner, Postcards4va | robbin@postcards4va.com or Brett Major, CitizenBe | brett@citizenbe.org

  • old_redneck

    Okay, I’m happy the postcard WRITERS feel so good about their writing.

    But, what about the RECIPIENTS?

    Did receiving a post card make a person more likely, less likely, or about the same to vote, to support a certain candidate, etc.??

    • A_Siegel

      Right — what is the analysis of effectiveness /impact of the postcards on election outcomes / voting pattern?

      • Robbin

        Indeed, there are many questions to be asked and many studies that need to be conducted. This was just the first step in our program to study the impact of postcards.

        We choose to start here because if we’re going to have sustained political involvement and not just win one election and then go back to the political malaise that helped get us into this mess in the first place (low voter turnout and a disengaged electorate), we need to do things differently. We may be able to harness the current anger into winning one election, but one win is a temporary fix. We need to figure out how to keep people who are now awake and active involved long term. That’s what this study was designed to investigate.

        Though there are no published studies that have looked at the exact type of handwritten, personal political notes we’re doing, there is a 2014 study that found partisan campaign mailers do increase voter turner (See David Doherty and E. Scott Adler, “The Persuasive Effect of Partisan Campaign Mailers,” Political Research Quarterly, 2014. Vol. 67(3): 562-573.).

        While we wait for the results to come out on such quantitative studies, we do have significant anecdotal evidence from candidates and canvassers that in the final days of the 2017 Virginia election people were talking about postcards and showing canvassers and candidates the postcards they had received. Yes, people were saving the cards! One candidate even went so far as to speculate that she had a 9 percentage point voter turnout increase in her predominately rural district because of postcards.

        • Nice!

        • Denise

          Did that candidate win? How did she determine that the post cards gave her a 9% increase? Had she run before? I assume she was comparing 2017 to the past Delegate’s election in 2015?

          • Robbin

            Angela Lynn who ran in HD 25 found a 9% voter turnout increase in that district between when she ran in 2015 and 2017. According to Lynn “The postcards were a significant factor because many of the voters told me that they loved having the personal touch asking them to vote and appreciated the handwritten cards but in addition were reminded and committed to vote and made it a duty. I tried to call to remind them and go to thousands of homes and many voters told me they received the cards and were grateful for the reminder to vote.”