Thursday, May 23, 2013
BILL NEMITZ COLUMN
One week from Tuesday, six weeks to the day before the Nov. 6 election, Maine's electoral class of 2012 will be allowed under state law to plunk down their campaign signs alongside highways and byways all over this otherwise picturesque state.
You know the drill: By the time Election Day rolls around, those traffic islands on your way to work will be smothered with colorful placards -- each bearing a name in large type and, alas, not a whole lot else.
All of which raises a question: Is it worth it? Do all the time, money and energy behind this biennial blossom of bold lettering against bright backgrounds truly affect who ultimately wins and who loses?
They did for Ben Griffin.
I'd formally introduce you to Ben if not for one major obstacle. He doesn't exist.
Ben Griffin, you see, is the brainchild of Elizabeth Zechmeister and Cindy Kam. Both political science professors at Vanderbilt University, they decided last year to examine the cause-and-effect connection between simple name recognition and success in the voting booth.
"We began from the perspective that voters are going to use the information that's available to them," Zechmeister said in a telephone interview Friday. "But we also know that in some elections, there is really very, very, little information about the candidates beyond the name."
Good point. How many times have you stood over your ballot, staring with furrowed brow at the three names listed under, say, the local water district board of trustees, and you haven't a clue who they are, what they stand for or, most importantly, who most deserves your vote?
That's where Ben Griffin came in.
As part of a broader study of the power of name recognition, Zechmeister and Kam first consulted various name registries to come up with their unobtrusive, middle-of-the-road moniker.
Then, with a metropolitan Nashville, Tenn., election fast approaching, they had a handful of "Ben Griffin" candidate signs printed and placed them in the yard of a willing homeowner down the street from an elementary school in Nashville.
Three days later, the school's Parent Teacher Organization, again in cooperation with the researchers, emailed all school parents a link to a brief online survey. To encourage participation, parents were told the school would get $5 for each survey completed.
The survey listed seven candidates running for the county's three at-large council seats. But only five of the names were real -- Ben Griffin and another name were completely fictitious.
Drumroll, please. Of the parents who had driven by Ben's signs, nearly a quarter put him in their top three. Of those who never saw the signs, only 14 percent thought he deserved a seat on the council.
As Zechmeister concluded at the time, the 10 percent difference was significant "given the small number of days we carried out the experiment and how unobtrusive the signs were."
So what's going on here? Has the republic descended to the point where your name -- and only your name -- is enough to get you elected to public office?
Yes, Zechmeister replied last week, and no.
"Our argument is that absent anything else, in politics name recognition seems to be a good thing," she said. "In low-information elections, our best guess is that these signs have an effect."
Zechmeister said that effect all but disappears, however, when voters obtain more information -- gender, race or ethnicity, party affiliation, incumbency, to name a few -- on which to base their choice.
"Maybe one of the takeaway messages for people is that they might want to stop and think a little bit before they go into the voting booth," Zechmeister suggested.
(Continued on page 2)