The only thing that three political scientists wanted to do was send mailers to thousands of Montana voters as part of a study of nonpartisan elections. What could possibly go wrong? A lot, judging from the outrage and a state investigation. It has also raised thorny questions about political science field research, which isn’t uncommon, and its ability to affect an election. The experiment, by the political scientists Adam Bonica and Jonathan Rodden of Stanford University and Kyle Dropp of Dartmouth College, sent mail to 100,000 Montana registered voters about two elections for the state’s supreme court. The Montana mailer, labeled “2014 Montana General Election Voter Information Guide,” featured the official state seal. It also placed the four judicial candidates on an ideological spectrum that included Barack Obama and Mitt Romney as reference points. The mailers were designed to test whether voters who received information placing candidates on an ideological range would be more likely to vote. While political scientists have studied partisan races and voter turnout, less is known about nonpartisan races. Mr. Bonica, who had developed ideological scores for candidates and campaign donors, created a similar measure for state supreme court justices. The ideological scores for the Montana nonpartisan candidates were based in large part on the partisan candidates their donors had also given to.
By putting the four candidates on an ideological range, the experiment also raised the ire of Montana officials, who expressed concern about the injection of partisanship into an officially nonpartisan race. “For a university to join in the flood of outside groups coming into Montana is not doing a service to our democracy,” said Senator Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, in a telephone interview. He said the experiment was done “to influence voters” and described the mailer’s language as “the kind of stuff I get from the Montana Republican Party or Democratic Party.”