Let's say new Gubernatorial elections are coming up in the US and you are dead set on doing everything possible to help your candidate win.

What would be the most impactful legal way to do so, in terms of the number of votes gained from your activity?

Possible actions include:

  • Voting
  • Asking your friends to vote
  • Putting up a sign in your yard
  • Volunteering for the campaign to do cold calling
  • Volunteering to canvass your neighborhood
  • Donating money to the campaign, etc.

Has anyone attempted to calculate which type of contributions are the most effective? Note that I'm talking about a scientific calculation, not an opinion based answer. Given how many elections happen per year, surely someone could've tried to calculate the number of votes one could approximately get from each type of contribution?

  • 2
    Closers: the presence of lame answers does not necessarily imply a bad question.
    – agc
    Nov 16, 2019 at 3:01
  • I suspect this question is too broad in the sense that no such study has been conducted, i.e. on that many possible options compared. Even detecting the effects of a single option like campaign contributions can be difficult empirically. Nov 21, 2019 at 23:55

5 Answers 5


There is probably no hard data on all (or even most) the options you ask about, but this should be interesting:

“Money is fungible in a way that votes aren’t,” said Harvard political scientist and government professor Stephen Ansolabehere.

A hard question is how much, exactly, a single donation is worth. Some very rough estimates suggest it takes $40 on average to get a person to vote using traditional methods like canvassing, Ansolabehere said.

“If I give $200, that translates in some sense to five votes,” he said, “But campaigns are like really inefficient nonprofits. A lot depends on how much they’re spending on overhead, and the effectiveness of their methods.”

Indeed, there’s no magic formula to predict how much your cash will help. On average, current presidential candidates have spent about $10 for every popular vote they’ve earned to date, based on Federal Election Commission data and reported primary election results.

Of course, different campaigns see different “returns” on spending.

And they give some examples in which $20 in one campaign equals $4 in another campaign (both contemporary). Also

But the relationship between campaign spending and success with voters can be loose — and unpredictable. [...]

studies have shown that challengers get more voter “bang” for their campaign-spending buck than do incumbents, in part because lesser-known candidates have more to benefit from simply getting their name out.

I suspect the same is true for other things that money buy, i.e. there's probably a diminishing return for canvassing etc. as a campaign/candidate gets better known.

Interestingly, volunteering might not be as "fungible" as giving money:

That's what political scientists Ryan Enos and Eitan Hersh found in their paper "Party Activists as Campaign Managers," recently published in the American Political Science Review. As they note, modern presidential campaigns go out of their way to produce advertisements that are tailored for their local audience. They choose actors, backgrounds, themes, and language to appeal most effectively to Iowa farmers, Florida retirees, and Ohio factory workers. It's hard to beat the sophistication with which modern campaigns match an ad to its intended target.

But it's an entirely different story when it comes to recruiting campaign volunteers. Campaigns can't build canvassers the way they can manufacture television ads; they're dependent on the available pool of local volunteers. Who actually volunteers to give up their time to walk precincts and knock on doors in the weeks prior to an election? It's really not your average American. It's hard enough to get the average American to vote in most elections.

As Enos and Hersh find in their analysis of President Obama's campaign workers in 2012, those who will actually offer their labor tend to be somewhat wealthier, whiter, more educated, and more liberal than the electorate as a whole. They believe different things and prioritize issues differently than the people they're being sent out to persuade.

What's more, the volunteers often aren't from the same area to which they're being deployed. Volunteers can be very effective when they're canvassing in their local community, but quite often, those communities simply aren't competitive in the election. [...]

Does this actually end up hurting campaigns? That's difficult to say, but the effect is likely not large.

Note: the paper title as published is a bit different.

This seems to point to money buying personalized adds as ultimately more effective than canvassing, but I haven't seen a quantification of volunteer time (unit) as an equivalent adds-money value. And of course, with the right skills, one can volunteer for a big data operation.


What are your strengths? If you are good at talking with people, applying the shoe leather to door to door canvassing cannot be beat. Are you good with old people? Young people? Policy? Strategy? This will dictate how you should help and present yourself for help. Babe Ruth didn't become a great hitter trying to play the violin.


I suspect the biggest impact that a single individual (who is not wealthy or well-connected) can have on an election is not working jobs for the campaign they support, but instead doing things to tear down the opposing candidate.

For example, super PACs are (legal!) lobby groups in the US with hidden sources of funding that cannot officially coordinate with any political campaign, but such coordination is unnecessary because they typically run ads attacking particular candidates.

In general, finding and exposing unfavorable-looking things about a candidate in order to ruin their chances of victory seem to be an extremely effective tactic in American politics.

If you adopt this strategy, then the simplest thing that a lone person can do in their own bedroom is to create some catchy meme attacking one candidate and spread it on social media like Twitter or Facebook. American laws are not prepared to handle this, so it is perfectly legal to do even if the meme is nothing but a brazen lie. This is why there are already so many such things on the internet; people can lie without legal consequences, and the reality is that memes are often worth more than a single person's vote.

History has proven that many voters do not weigh candidates in a calm, rational manner, nor do they act in self-interest based on policies. Emotion is a powerful force in swaying voters.

Sad, but true.

  • Is there any scientific analysis to back this up? Nov 16, 2019 at 9:06
  • Any strategy that requires being on the right tip of a bell curve is not general. Creating a viral meme is non-trivial, and may depend on remote chances or rare talents. This answer is kind of like "set an athletic record while wearing a tee-shirt featuring your candidate".
    – agc
    Nov 20, 2019 at 18:20

One assumption would be that the campaign has a fairly good idea of what they want most.

Based on UK experience major campaigns would most like volunteers (ground or phone) followed by money.


91% of the time the better-financed candidate wins (in the US). Therefore giving them a donation is the best way.

  • 1
    The vote share of the Social Democratic Party of Germany is often equal to the number of metric tons of steel produced in West Germany in the year before the election. Therefore, producing more steel is the best way to help the SDP win elections. Nov 17, 2019 at 4:56
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    Correlation does not imply causation. Could it be possible that a more popular candidate has an easier time collecting donations? That would mean campaign finance and voting results would both correlate with popularity, but not correlate directly with each other. Maybe you could show that this hypothesis is true if you could find examples of candidates who were unpopular in early polls, then received an overproportional amount of campaign donations from the minority that supported them and then managed to improve their popularity through political advertisement.
    – Philipp
    Nov 18, 2019 at 9:41
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    Yeah. This isn't true for Presidential Elections. I looked it up. In the 15 races since 1960 the Winning candidate spent less 5 times. And in three of them the money spent was essentially a tie. (less than 5% difference). Example: Bill Clinton 92.9 - 92.6 for Bob Dole. So in Presidential races it's 50-50.
    – Mayo
    Nov 18, 2019 at 19:41
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    @Philipp on the other hand, if one's preferred candidate is already more popular, why spend a lot of money on them? On the other hand, spending money on a winner might get some influence.
    – JJJ
    Nov 19, 2019 at 1:20
  • @JJforTransparencyandMonica : indeed (although the data is a bit underwhelming on that) insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu/article/… Nov 21, 2019 at 23:46

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