Dr Joshua H Townsley

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I am a Researcher at WhatsApp, where I work on topics related to public policy, integrity, and emerging platforms. Previously, I was a Fellow in Quantitative Methodology at the London School of Economics, and before that served as Deputy Head of Insight and Data at the UK Liberal Democrats.

My academic background is in political science and quantitative methods. My academic research has been published in a number of international peer-reviewed journals. I have also delivered various courses on quantitative research methods at the LSE, the University of Warwick, and the University of Kent.

I received my PhD in political science from the University of Kent in 2019. Before that, I received a Research Masters (MRes) from the University of Nottingham and a BSc in Politics and Economics from the University of Bath.



PhD Political Science, University of Kent


MRes Politics, University of Nottingham


BSc Politics with Economics, University of Bath



Researcher (WhatsApp), Facebook


Fellow, London School of Economics


Deputy Head of Insight and Data, Liberal Democrats


Academic Research

Mobilising support when the stakes are high: Mass emails affect constituent-to-legislator lobbying

European Journal of Political Research (forthcoming)

Stuart Turnbull-Dugarte, Joshua Townsley, Florian Foos, and Denise Baron


Abstract: Mass emails are frequently used by advocacy groups to mobilise supporters to lobby legislators. But how effective are they at inducing constituent-to-legislator lobbying when the stakes are high? We test the efficacy of a large-scale email campaign conducted by the UK’s main anti-Brexit organisation. In 2019, the group prominently displayed a “Write to your MP” tool on their website, and assigned 119,362 supporters represented by legislators with incongruent views to one of four email messages encouraging them to write to their MP or a control condition (no email). Messages varied across two factors: whether the MP’s incongruent position was highlighted, and if urgency was emphasised. We find that 3.4% of treatment subjects contacted their representative, compared to 0.1% of those in the control, representing an additional 3,344 emails sent to MPs. We show that there was no substitution away from the most frequently used online legislator contact platform in the UK. While, on average, position and urgency cues had no marginal effects above the standard email, the most engaged supporters were more mobilised when informed that their MP held incongruent views. This study shows that advocacy groups can use low-cost communication techniques to mobilise supporters to lobby representatives when the stakes are high.

Political Science Research and Methods (forthcoming)

Joshua Townsley


Abstract: What impact do party leaflets and canvass visits have on voter turnout? Get Out The Vote (GOTV) experiments consistently find that campaigning needs to be personal in order to be effective. However, the imbalance between United States and European-based studies has led to recent calls for further European GOTV experiments. There are also comparatively few partisan experiments. I report the findings of a United Kingdom-based field experiment conducted with the Liberal Democrats in 2017. Results show that party leaflets boost turnout by 4.3 percentage points, while canvassing has a small additional effect (0.6 percentage points). The study also represents the first individual level experiment to compare GOTV effects between postal voters and in-person voters outside the United States.

Parliamentary Affairs (forthcoming)

Joshua Townsley, Stuart J. Turnbull-Dugarte, Siim Trumm, and Caitlin Milazzo


Abstract: While most voters in democratic countries still cast their ballot on election day, the proportion of the electorate which opts for postal voting has been steadily, and often dramatically, increasing. This transformation in electoral politics, however, is under-researched, particularly with regards to the motivations underlying the decision to cast a postal vote. In this paper, we analyse the factors that drive an individual to vote by post rather than at the polling station. Using data from the 2019 British Election Study, we show, among other findings, that citizens for whom in-person voting would entail higher costs, such as the elderly and disabled, are more likely to opt for the convenience of postal voting. In addition, we find that partisans are unlikely to vote by post, suggesting that they derive greater expressive benefits from voting in a public setting. Finally, our analysis demonstrates that constituency marginality matters when it comes to opting for postal voting: citizens in more competitive constituencies are significantly more likely to ensure their votes by casting their ballots by post rather than on election day.

British Journal of Politics and International Relations (forthcoming)


Joshua Townsley, Siim Trumm, and Caitlin Milazzo

Abstract: Parliamentary candidates face choices about the extent to which they personalise their election campaigns. They must strike a balance between promoting their party’s message and their own personal appeal, and they mustdecide how much effort to invest in developing personalised campaign activities. These decisions determine the nature of the campaigns that candidates run, and therefore, voters’ experience during elections. In this article, we use individual-level survey data from the British Representation Study to explore the extent to which candidates personalise their election campaigns in terms of messaging focus and activities. We find that candidates who live in the area they seek to represent, and those who are more positive about their electoral chances, run more personalised campaigns, in terms of focus and activities. Incumbents’ campaigns, meanwhile, are more personalised in their focus only, while candidates who have held national party office tend to use a greater range of personalised campaign activities.

Political engagement and turnout among same-sex couples in Western Europe

Research and Politics (2020)


Stuart Turnbull-Dugarte and Joshua Townsley

Abstract: This paper presents and addresses a simple, yet overlooked, research question: is there a sexuality gap in political engagement and participation between sexual minority individuals and the heterosexual majority in Western Europe? To answer this question, we employ a recently applied method of identifying lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) individuals using data on the gender composition of cohabiting partner households from the European Social Survey. Relying on a total sample of more than 110,000 individuals across twelve different countries with an identified sample of 1,542 LGB individuals, we test the divergence in political interest and political participation, both electoral and non-electoral, between LGB and non-LGB individuals. The results of our empirical analyses conform with our expectations. Theorising that LGBs, as a marginalised social stratum, are incentivised to participate and “vote like their rights depended on it”, we find empirical evidence of a significant and positive “sexuality gap” in levels of political interest, turnout and other forms of political participation in Western Europe over and above what can be determined by socio-economic determinants of political participation.

Political Studies (2020)


Siim Trumm, Caitlin Milazzo, and Joshua Townsley

Abstract: The outcome of the 2016 referendum on European Union membership took many by surprise and has continued to define the political discourse in Britain. Despite there being a growing body of research focused on explaining how voters cast their ballot, we still know little about what motivated our politicians to do the same. In this article, we draw on individual-level survey data from the British Representation Study to explore support for Brexit among parliamentary candidates who stood at the 2017 general election. We find that candidates’ political views on immigration and democracy were key determinants of their decision to vote Leave. In addition, more optimistic views of how Brexit was expected to impact British economy and democracy are associated with greater likelihood of voting Leave. These findings highlight that, while politicians were less likely than voters to support Brexit overall, their motivations for doing so were quite similar. Interestingly, however, we also find that candidates contesting constituencies with higher Leave support were no more likely to vote for Brexit themselves. Taken together, these findings have important implications for elite representation of voters’ policy preferences on the issue of Brexit.

Electoral Studies (2020)

Joshua Townsley and Stuart Turnbull-Dugarte

Abstract: While easily-accessible postal voting is on the rise in many countries, the implications for electoral campaigns are largely under-researched. Indeed, parties actively try to sign supporters up to postal votes to make it easier for them to turn out. But how effective are these efforts to recruit supporters on to postal votes? We present an original, pre-registered postal voter recruitment experiment – the first conducted outside the US – completed during the May 2018 UK elections. We test the effect of a common recruitment tactic – letters and application forms sent to supporters. Despite being widely used by parties, we find that these efforts are ineffective at both recruiting and mobilising supporters. While the rewards of successfully signing supporters up to postal voting are potentially substantial, our results suggest that parties should consider the most effective ways of doing so.

Journal of Experimental Political Science (2020)


Joshua Townsley

Abstract: Campaign experiments often report positive effects on voter turnout. But do these effects endure at subsequent elections? Existing studies provide mixed evidence on downstream effects, and the rate at which initial mobilisation effects decay. This paper contributes to existing research by presenting a pre-registered analysis of downstream effects in a unique experimental setting. I test whether effects from a UK partisan experiment in a low turnout election in May 2017 persisted at the high turnout general election a month later. The findings show that in this short space of time, the original turnout effects virtually disappeared, suggesting that downstream effects resulting from campaign experiments can be quickly subsumed by the high saliency of subsequent elections.

Parliamentary Affairs (2020)


Caitlin Milazzo and Joshua Townsley

Abstract: Recent decades have seen an increasing trend towards the personalisation of election campaigns, even in systems where candidates have few structural incentives to emphasise their personal appeal. In this article, we build on a growing literature that points to the importance of candidate characteristics in determining electoral success. Using a dataset composed of more than 3700 leaflets distributed during the 2015 and 2017 general elections, we explore the conditions under which messages emphasising the personal characteristics of prospective parliamentary candidates appear in British general election campaign materials. Even when we account for party affiliation, we find that there are important contextual and individual-level factors that predict the use of candidate-centred messaging.

Political Studies Review (2020)


Caitlin Milazzo, Siim Trumm, and Joshua Townsley

Abstract: Parties’ electoral communications play a central role in British campaigns. Yet, we know little about the nature of the material contained in these communications and how parties’ campaign messages differ across constituencies or elections. In this paper, we present a new dataset of 8,600 election leaflets from four recent general elections that relies on crowdsourced information. We illustrate the utility of the OpenElections dataset by comparing the use of negative campaign messaging across parties and over time.


Acta Politica (2017)


Siim Trumm, Laura Sudulich, and Joshua Townsley

Abstract: We explore the impact of campaign effort on constituency-level turnout variation in Britain, under the premise that higher levels of campaign visibility stimulate electoral participation. We focus on the relationship between the competitiveness of the race and campaign effort as a provider of electoral information on the one hand, and voter turnout on the other hand. In doing so, we address the role of campaign effort and competitiveness in shaping turnout both independently as well as jointly. Further to this, we seek to add nuance to our understanding of how electoral campaigns mobilise voters by evaluating the comparative ability of different parties – based on whether or not they are ‘viable’ contenders in a particular constituency – to stimulate turnout. We find evidence that campaign effort mobilises voters and has a significant positive effect on voter turnout; this effect is independent from, and unconditioned by, the competitiveness of the race. However, we do find that this effect is mostly driven by the campaign effort of the ‘viable’ contenders in the constituency.


Other publications

Brexit flashback: The rise from electoral ranges to centre stage. (2020). UK in a Changing Europe (blog).

OpenElections: Introducing the largest collection of British election communications in existence (2020). LSE British Politics & Policy (blog).


Explaining support for Brexit among would-be MPs in the 2017 general election (2020). LSE British Politics & Policy (blog).


Why has the populist radical right outperformed the populist radical left in Europe? (2019). Open Democracy (blog).


European elections 2019: what will happen in the East Midlands? (2019). Democratic Audit UK (blog).


European elections 2019: what will happen in the West Midlands? (2019). Democratic Audit UK (blog).


European elections 2019: what will happen in the East of England region? (2019). Democratic Audit UK (blog).


Local elections 2019: the directly elected mayoral contests. (2019). Democratic Audit UK (blog).


The UK’s 2019 European Parliament elections are happening after all. Here’s how they will work. (2019). Democratic Audit UK (blog). 


How not to recruit postal voters in the UK. (2019). LSE British Politics & Policy (blog).


‘Conceived in Harlesden’: When do candidates emphasise their local connections in UK general elections? (2019). Democratic Audit UK



Do party leaflets and canvass visits increase voter turnout? (2018). LSE British Politics & Policy (blog).


Campaign spending and voter turnout: does a candidate’s local prominence influence the effect of their spending? (2018). Democratic Audit UK (blog).


England’s local elections 2018: bridging the information gap with the Democratic Dashboard. (2018). Democratic Audit UK (blog).


General Election 2017: Voting Toolkit. (2017). Use Your Voice (public resource).


The Economic Benefits of Joining, Establishing, or Growing a Multi Academy Trust. (2017). Education Policy Institute (report).