Peer-to-Peer Organizing Guide


Peer-to-peer campaigning is built on three principles:

  1. The more personal a contact, the more effective it is in turning out voters.
  2. People are most strongly influenced by people they know and people that are similar to them.
  3. The most effective way to reach potential voters is to go to the places where they live or hang out.

Personal Contact

Most field programs in the past were based on the assumption that young Americans were not receptive to political appeals, however research done over the last decade reveals that young voters are just as affected by political contact as other age demographics.1 While this research tore down one assumption, it confirmed another: personal contacts are much more effective than impersonal methods. The findings of Green and Gerber showed an 8-10% mobilizing effect from door-to-door (in person) contact and a 3-5% effect from calls made by volunteers. Other less personal contact methods such as calls made from professional phone banks, leafleting, and direct mail all yielded a mobilizing effect of 2% or less at a dramatically higher cost-to-vote ratio. 2

Influence and Similarity

A person is influenced the most by their family, friends, and neighbors. These social bonds increase the pressure to say yes to a request and carry the strength of trust. The eminent social psychologist Dr. Robert Cialdini of Arizona State University uses the following example in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion:

Take, for instance, the growing number of charity organizations that recruit volunteers to canvass for donations close to their own homes. They understand perfectly how much more difficult it is for us to turn down a charity request when it comes from a friend or a neighbor.3

This principle applies not only to charity requests but to political requests as well, from registering someone to vote to turning them out on Election Day.

People are also more likely to comply with a request made by someone that is similar to them. For example, you are more likely to do something that is asked of you if the requester is dressed like you, and you probably will not realize that it had any effect on your decision. Cialdini highlights a study from the 1970s where “marchers in an antiwar demonstration were found to be not only more likely to sign the petition of a similarly dressed requester, but also to do so without bothering to read it first.” 4

When it comes to electoral participation, young voters “need the authentic encouragement of a peer to become a participant.” 5

Homes and Hangouts

The greatest challenge in reaching young voters for traditional field programs is finding them. Millennials move more frequently and are more likely to rely solely on a mobile phone than older generations.6 The key to reaching this important demographic is to go to the places where young people live and hang out. University campuses, concerts, cultural and community events, parks, sporting events, progressive churches, bars, restaurants, coffee shops, and shopping centers are all places that campaigns can engage peer-to-peer with young voters. As Michael Connery described in Youth to Power, “concert halls and bars became the progressive equivalent of how evangelical churches are used by the conservative movement.”7 The key is to contact and engage young voters using the context of their own lives.


Location, Location, Location

The ideal location for peer-to-peer outreach will have a large concentration of young people and an environment that is conducive to socializing and communicating. A great way to find out where the best opportunities are is to ask your young supporters: nobody knows where young people hang out better than a young person. Here are some examples:

  • High traffic areas of college and university campuses – Outside the entrances of the library, student union, residence halls, and large classroom buildings. It is important to not focus solely on a single location but to periodically switch locations so you reach a variety of different people.8 A successful tactic that many Young and College Democrats chapters have used is to help students move in to their residence halls during the first week of school and use that opportunity to talk to the students.
  • Outside of sporting events – Talk to young people as they enter and exit a stadium for a sporting event. Using the principle of similarity mentioned earlier, have your organizers wear clothing representing the home team.
  • Community and cultural events – For example, in Phoenix there is a First Fridays art festival on the first Friday of every month. The Young Democrats of Arizona reserve table space at the festival and have been extremely successful collecting voter registrations, petition signatures, and email list sign-ups.
  • County fairs and 4-H events – In rural areas county fairs provide a great opportunity for reaching rural youth, which is one of the hardest demographics to reach. 4-H clubs are also very popular with rural youth.


Tabling is a very popular tactic among campus organizers due to it being particularly effective on college and university campuses. However, tabling can be effective anywhere that allows you to set up space in a high-traffic area as long as it is not so crowded you are completely drowned out.

The most common mistake made while tabling is for organizers to just remain seated at the table waiting for people to come to them. The main purpose of the table is for visibility and to hold campaign materials. While an organizer should always remain at the table, other organizers should only use the table as a home base and spend their time out in the crowds engaging young people.

The campaign should also prioritize the actions that they want people to take, whether it is registering to vote, signing a petition, signing up for an email list, or completing a vote pledge. Once a person has taken your priority action, this may be your foot-in-the-door for secondary and tertiary actions. Be careful not to be too aggressive with people, be polite even when someone blows you off, and always thank someone for taking an action. You want to ensure that people leave with a positive impression of the campaign.

In addition to your general campaign materials, the table should also have plenty of voter registration forms as well as any other technical forms depending on your jurisdiction (for example, in Arizona there are forms to request a ballot by mail or to sign up for the permanent early voter list). Your table should be fully equipped as a resource for any election needs, including the ability to give polling place information closer to the election.

Vote Pledges

Vote pledges are based on the power of commitment and consistency. According to Dr. Cialdini, “once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment.”9 A vote pledge asks a voter to commit to voting in the next election.

The vote pledge was the primary tool in the Young Democrats of America organizing arsenal during the 2008 election. The YDA vote pledge was not only a pledge to vote, but a pledge to vote for Democrats throughout the ballot. The young people that signed a vote pledge committed to take that action, and they were much more likely to actually do so in order to be consistent: “Once a stand is taken, there is a natural tendency to behave in ways that are stubbornly consistent with the stand.” 10

For this commitment to truly take hold of the signer, the must take ownership of their pledge. This means that campaigns and organizations should not offer external incentives for people to sign:

Social scientists have determined that we accept inner responsibility for a behavior when we think we have chosen to perform it in the absence of strong outside pressures. A large reward is one such external pressure. It may get us to perform a certain action, but it won’t get us to accept inner responsibility for the act. Consequently, we won’t feel committed to it. 11

Using incentives such as raffle tickets or free chum diminishes the sense of inner responsibility, and while it may boost your numbers in the beginning, your results on Election Day will suffer.

An effective vote pledge form must allow you to collect contact information from the signers, specifically their name, address, email, and phone number. Hard copies of vote pledge forms should also include a signature line, since the act of signing a document increases psychological commitment.12

Collecting the vote pledge is only the first step. With the information you have collected you can follow up with the people that signed to remind them of their pledge and give them voting information such as the location of their polling place. Following the election you can check the voter file to evaluate how successful you were in getting those people to the polls. Given the difficulty of finding good contact information for young voters due to increased mobility and exclusive use of cell phones, this data is extremely valuable.

Voter Registration

David Plouffe’s memoir of the 2008 Obama for America campaign, The Audacity to Win, frequently returns to the importance of expanding the electorate to winning the election.13 To expand the electorate a campaign must register and turn out new and unlikely voters.

A campaign or organization’s emphasis on voter registration should depend on the mission and the distance to an election. There are organizations that focus almost entirely on registration, and for them it is a priority up until the registration deadline. A candidate or partisan youth organization will benefit from registration efforts early in a campaign but will be better served focusing on turning out voters as the election draws near. However, organizers should always have registration forms on hand regardless of the timing.

One tactic that has been successful with some youth organizations are Pledge to Reg programs geared towards Millennials that are about to turn 18. Similar to the vote pledge tactic, organizers get 17-year-olds to complete and sign a Pledge to Reg form with their contact information so the organizers can follow up with them once they are eligible to register to vote.

Campaigns should always make photocopies of collected registration forms so the new registrants can be later contacted with election reminders and polling information. Organizers should also be trained to be able to quickly look over a registration form to ensure that everything is complete.

In states and districts with a Republican registration advantage, registering new young voters and following up with them to get them to the polls can be the difference between a celebration on election night and a heartbreaking close call.

Get Out The Vote

The most important aspect of a youth GOTV effort is to convey information to contacts about when and where to vote.14 In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes a study at Yale University that tested methods used to encourage students to visit the student health center and receive a tetanus vaccination. While information packets with fear-inducing information about the disease had virtually no effect, researchers were able to increase the vaccination rate by 28% solely by “including a map of the campus, with the university health building circled and the times that shots were available clearly listed.” The interesting aspect of the study was that the students that responded to the map already knew where the building was. According to Gladwell:

The students needed to know how to fit the tetanus stuff into their lives; the addition of the map and the times when the shots were available shifted the booklet from an abstract lesson in medical risk – a lesson no different from the countless other academic lessons they had received over their academic career – to a practical and personal piece of medical advice. And once the advice became practical and personal, it became memorable.16

This same principle applies to getting young voters to the polls on Election Day. Your campaign needs to give young voters the information that puts voting in the context of their lives. A GOTV effort on a college campus that has an on-campus polling location could include a handout of a campus map with the polling location circled with the times that the location is open. You can email young voters that were registered or contacted earlier in the campaign a Google Map with the directions from their registration address to their polling site. At a minimum your campaign should be telling voters when and where to vote.

Cultural Outreach

Successful cultural outreach does not happen overnight. In the past the ‘cultural outreach’ efforts of campaigns and organizations were just “campaign rallies and civic drives in cultural drag, exploiting the culture to attain a specific goal.”17 Using Malcolm Gladwell’s definitions from The Tipping Point, Michael Connery argues that “a real cultural outreach strategy finds the mavens, connectors, and salespeople within each subculture and uses them to change the entire culture itself from the bottom up.”18

Biko Baker of the League Young Voters Education Fund highlights some of the errors organizations make in organizing non-college youth. First, campaigns have to earn the trust of young people in low-income communities: “you can’t just pop up in a neighborhood and get respect. You have to earn it.”19 Second, the focus must be more on organizing and less on just promoting your campaign or organization: “Low income communities only respond when they see a real commitment to organizing and local leadership development.”20 Cultural outreach is a powerful tool in organizing non-college youth, but to be successful you need to earn the respect of a community’s influencers and develop them into organizers.

Cultural outreach requires active and continuous engagement in order to be effective. Because of this, many campaigns and organizations ignore cultural outreach and instead focus solely on college students – the low-hanging fruit of youth organizing. By neglecting non-college and low-income youth, campaigns waste important opportunities to expand the electorate with new progressive voters and empower these communities.


1 See Friedrichs, Ryan. Mobilizing 18-35 Year Old Voters: An Analysis of the Michigan Democratic Party’s 2002 Youth Coordinated Campaign, 2003.; Green, Donald P. and Gerber, Alan S. Getting Out the Youth Vote: Results from Randomized Field Experiments, 2001.; and Nickerson, David W. Hunting the Elusive Young Voter, Journal of Political Marketing, Vol. 5 (3) 2006.
2 Analysis of Green and Gerber’s findings in Friedrichs 2003.
3 Cialdini, Robert B. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. New York: Quill, 1993. (169)
4 Cialdini (173)
5 Nickerson (26)
6 Pew Millennials Report (32)
7 Connery, Michael. Youth to Power: How Today’s Young Voters Are Building Tomorrow’s Progressive Majority. Brooklyn: Ig Publishing, 2008. (158)
8 Student PIRGs Activist Toolkit (6)
9 Cialdini (57)
10 Cialdini (67)
11 Cialdini (93)
12 Werner, Carol M., Jane Turner, Kristen Shipman, F. Shawn Twitchell, Becky R. Dickson, Gary V. Bruschke and Wolfgang B. von Bismarck. Commitment, behavior, and attitude change: An analysis of voluntary recycling. Journal of Environmental Psychology, Volume 15, Issue 3, September 1995. Pages 197-208.
13 Plouffe, David. The Audacity to Win. New York: Viking, 2009.
14 Gerber and Green 2001 (4)
15 Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. New York: Back Bay Books, 2002. (97)
16 Gladwell (98)
17 Connery (156)
18 Connery (157)
19 Baker, Biko. Doing REAL work with Non-College Youth. March 4, 2010.
20 Baker, 2010.