In the past week, we witnessed a spirited presidential debate, watched a couple of candidates apologize for “gaffes,” and we contemplated the effect of positive job numbers on the election. It was gripping, must-see election TV. We got “all lathered up,” as they say on “Morning Joe,” but we may have missed the most important story of the week.
Sasha Issenberg probably would agree that we were tuned to the wrong channel. He’s the author of “The Victory Lab,” a new book that digs in deep on the “secret science of winning campaigns.” Issenberg chronicles the unsung heroes of campaigns—the field generals. These are the data geeks: the voter file manipulators, the microtargeters, the list keepers, and the turnout projectors. These are the individuals who may never even meet the candidate, but who may do more to influence an election than the high-profile consultant, campaign manager or spokesperson.
Issenberg looks at how campaigns have used data and behavioral science to influence an election. One example he offers is an experiment where someone sent letters to voters letting them know their vote history would be published in the newspaper following the upcoming election. Voters were angry at this so-called invasion of privacy, but the experiment resulted in a 7% increase in turnout. Other experiments resulted in similar findings.
These slight manipulations of voters work. Issenberg pointed out in a tweet last week that an email President Obama sent recently was all about manipulating us to vote. The email stated how many voters had the same name as the email’s recipient. It was a subtle nudge. But behavioral scientists know that people will be more likely to do something if they think people who are like them are doing it too. Indeed, what Issenberg uncovers about how Obama won in 2008, and about what he is doing now, is nothing short of astonishing.
Some will find this kind of manipulation offensive, but politicians are hardly the first to try something like this. In fact, one of the best passages in the book comes when one campaign is discussing big data and targeting with a new hire who possesses a business background. The former corporate guy responds to the campaign operative: “You don’t do this in politics?”
But the behavioral science stuff isn’t the best part. It’s understanding the advantage that comes with properly utilizing every available piece of intelligence about a voter. Issenberg looks at how campaigns have adjusted to this “big data” world. Even 12 years ago, when I was first getting involved in politics, big data meant a rudimentary voter list, usually outdated, and if you were lucky, a fundraising database that you kept on a floppy disk. Now? It’s information about every possible voter—their magazine subscriptions, family status, annual income, credit score, you name it. Big data means targeting you (and people like you) in the most sophisticated way possible. Issenberg has written a contemporary history about this tectonic shift in campaign management.
This dynamic has changed campaigns. And while the old-school grizzly campaign veterans still hold sway, they can be challenged by the guy with the unassailable PowerPoint. Politics ain’t beanbag. It’s business.
I’ve been fascinated in the past few years (for obvious reasons) by the intersection of business and politics. In the book, a data consultant is quoted saying that “The political business and the corporate business are like movie stars and rock stars. Everybody wants to be doing what the other side is doing. Every movie star wants to be a rock star, and vice versa.” So true.
Business and politics steal from each other shamelessly. Look at how Walmart set up what is essentially a permanent political campaign within their organization. And when politicians saw that you could use credit data to learn more about potential voters, they were borrowing heavily from the playbook of the world’s greatest marketers who used the same information to target potential customers.
I liked this book for several reasons, but two especially. One, it is about the part of a political campaign that is important but often ignored. In that regard, it’s groundbreaking–no recent campaign book has spent this much time on this part of a campaign operation. With this book, Issenberg is imploring us (and campaign journalists) to pay attention to how campaigns are working to influence voters directly. And second, Issenberg interviewed AND quoted the people whose idea of campaigning is sorting fields in a spreadsheet all day. They don’t get the profiles in glossy magazines, but they influence as much as the talkers. It was nice to finally see them get credit.
Precise execution of voter contact programs can be the difference in a close election. We didn’t grasp the full scope of how far ahead the Bush campaign was in 2004 until after the polls closed and votes from the exurbs were tallied. Bush 2004 changed the game with their contact and targeting program. Democrats caught up quickly, and it’s obvious that Obama had a better program in 2008. There hasn’t been much written about 2012—does Mitt Romney have the same competence and effectiveness in his ground game? Or have the Obama campaigners continued to leverage data and cutting edge persuasion techniques? Issenberg seems to imply Obama is way ahead in this game, but maybe it’s just that the Romney campaign didn’t return his calls. I guess we’ll know in 30 days.
And, to all of my friends who are or who are contemplating running for office in 2013 or 2014, go read this book. Because if there might be a way to get just a few extra votes, it’s worth doing everything possible, right?
Thanks for reading.