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The secret science of winning elections

March 7, 2014, at 1:14 PM
 
Obama's campaign used social media to drum up support from young voters.

Obama's campaign used social media to drum up support from young voters. Photo: (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In a new episode of the Political Wire podcast, we spoke with Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab, about the behavioral science behind modern campaign strategy and winning campaigns.

Here are five takeaways from our discussion:

1. Voters aren't rational, both in terms of how they pick candidates and whether they even decide to vote: For a long time, political scientists and operatives held the assumption "that voters were really rational," Issenberg said. That long-held assumption, however, has turned out to be false. Social science research, especially in behavioral psychology, shows that voters don't decide whom to vote for, or even whether to vote, from rationally analyzing and weighing factors such as the importance of their vote or the candidates' stances. Rather, "people are as complicated in the world of voting as they are in economic decisions that they make or other things that they do in their lives," Issenberg said.

2. Campaigns will increasingly use social-science research to target voters more efficiently: Increasingly, researchers also are running "clinical-trial"-type experiments in which they test different voter-outreach strategies on separate groups of people and determine which strategy turns out the most voters. In 2012, Issenberg explained, Obama campaign workers and volunteers often asked voters whether they planned to vote and how they would get to the polls — not because they wanted to track respondents' answers, though. As it turns out, Issenberg said, they likely did that because just getting voters to engage in this plan-making or "implementation intention" makes them a bit more likely to vote, some experiments have found. In the end, the tools that campaigns use to contact voters won't change as a direct result of this research: "It’s about having a much more granular way of prioritizing mail that you’d already send, volunteers that you'd already dispatch, phone calls that you’d already make, but assessing voters on an individual level instead of as parts of very big categories."

3. Research also shows that volunteers are more effective than paid staff at gaining voters. Another key insight that's emerging from this wave of empirical research: "We’re starting to see that volunteers do something that cannot be replicated or certainly cannot be easily replicated with cash." Volunteers who interact with voters are more successful at turning them out to the polls than are paid staffers, research has found. The Obama campaign used that information to its advantage, especially in 2008, when it mobilized a massive army of volunteers and often bucked the norm of hiring paid consultants — from Detroit preachers to Philadelphia ward bosses — to turn out voters. "It was really ballsy of the Obama campaign," Issenberg said.

4. Despite the campaign innovations emerging from these studies, don't expect robocalls to go away: "There are still a lot of political consultants who make money off robocalls," Issenberg explained. Additionally, late in an election race robocalls become more popular because it's too late for campaigns to deploy other methods, such as buying TV ad time, opening offices, sending mailers, or hiring more staff. And in a world where top campaign officials take major heat if their team leaves some money unspent and ends up losing, they have to find a way to use as much of the money as possible. "So sadly all the cultural incentives are aligned to spend every last dollar you have at the end, and robocalls are basically the last thing you can buy," Issenberg said.

5. Campaigns in 2016 should look to bring on board people who challenge the conventional wisdom about messaging: In 2012, the Obama campaign brought on board a director of experiments, University of Notre Dame political scientist David Nickerson, to run studies on voter-outreach strategies and "gain these types of insights about how people really respond in the real world to these types of interactions," Issenberg said. It was the first time a campaign had actually hired a director of experiments, and Issenberg argued that it shouldn't be the last time. Campaigns in 2016 should not only think of hiring directors of experiments but also consider hiring advisers early on to serve as "professionally skeptical" counterweights to staffers who focus mostly on messaging, Issenberg said. "If you're going to spend $1 billion running for president," he added, "you should spend some of your time and money and energy figuring out how to spend that [$1 billion] as intelligently as possible."

Listen to the whole conversation here:

Subscribe to the podcast via iTunes or RSS to get episodes automatically downloaded.

 

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