Political Behavior, Vol. 24, No. 1, March 2002 ( 2002)
THE POLITICS OF PARTICIPATION:
Mobilization and Turnout over Time
Kenneth M. Goldstein and Travis N. Ridout
Recent studies have argued that mobilization is not only an important determinant of
individual participation, but that it can explain the mystery of declining voter turnout
in the United States over the past 40 years. We identify and evaluate three possible
ways in which mobilization might have affected levels of turnout over time: (a) aggre-
gate rates of mobilization may have declined, (b) the effectiveness of mobilization
contacts may have declined, and (c) the targeting of mobilization may have changed.
The first two theories have been well articulated in the literature; the third has not.
We find no evidence of a decline in mobilizing activity, nor do we find that mobilizing
techniques have become less effective. Although we find that campaigns are more
likely to target habitual voters in recent years, this pattern of behavior can only ex-
plain a small amount of the overall decline in turnout.
Key words: voter turnout, mobilization, political participation.
Different studies on different elections at different times using different
methods have all found that political mobilization—variously labeled voter
contact, get-out-the-vote (GOTV), or the voter canvass—matters (Blyden-
burgh, 1971; Cutright, 1963; Gerber and Green, 2000; Gosnell, 1927; Katz
and Eldersveld, 1961; Kramer, 1970; Merriam and Gosnell, 1924; Nagel,
1987). These works, among them some of the oldest empirical and behavioral
studies in our discipline, demonstrate that political activity and mobilization
contacts must be part of any comprehensive explanation of why citizens partic-
ipate in politics. Recent studies, however, have taken this basic finding a step
further, arguing that mobilization is not only an important determinant of
individual participation, but that decreases in either its amount—which would
Kenneth M. Goldstein, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Wisconsin–Madi-
son, Department of Political Science, 110 North Hall, 1050 Bascom Mall, Madison, WI 53706.
Travis N. Ridout, Ph.D. candidate, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Department of Political
Science, 110 North Hall, 1050 Bascom Mall, Madison, WI 53706.
0190-9320/02/0300-0003/0 2002 Plenum Publishing Corporation