Anyone who ever gave money to Barack Obama paid a price far steeper than his or her donation. You know what I’m talking about. Those emails. The ones that arrived every day — every hour, sometimes — nonstop, for months. Did I want to get dinner with the president and Sarah Jessica Parker? Did I want to give yet more money? Did I know an FEC filing deadline was coming up, so I really should give money? Scott, you haven’t given money in awhile, is everything ok? (Actually.)
Apparently, this strategy — annoying as it was — worked. Apparently, there is hard data to back it up. Ever wonder how political scientists gather these data? I hadn’t either. But then I read “The Victory Lab” by Sasha Issenberg, and, I have to say, I was intrigued. The book, remarkably, was approachable, entertaining and thoroughly informative. Kind of like a Michael Lewis book that I can actually understand.
Actually, speaking of Michael Lewis, his book, “The Big Short,” is a good counterweight for “The Victory Lab.” “The Big Short” — a story of the 2008 financial crisis — is funny, fascinating and full of far too many financial terms for me, but its main point seemed to be — look at all of these amazing weird people who knew the economy was going to crash — how could anyone have missed it? Evidently, only social outcasts and savants were able to predict the Great Recession, but for them it was obvious. “The Victory Lab” at first may seem to be the same sort of story. Each chapter was a sort of vignette, depicting a single campaign or political operative or tactic, and showing why it, more than anything or anyone else, triumphed.
But it isn’t. The takeaway message from “The Victory Lab” is actually that any political campaign — from city council in Peoria to the presidential bonanza — can exploit the information gathered by scientists. Anyone can use this information, and, if you aren’t, it’s all your fault and you are falling behind. You don’t have to be an oddball or a genius to see how to win elections. You just have to learn to listen to Yale professors.
That’s right. A significant chunk of the book focuses on the pioneering work of Yale political scientists Alan Gerber and Don Green. Gerber and Green are, some might say, the fathers of the get-out-the-vote tactic in politics. They revolutionized politics forever when they decided to study voter mobilization using randomized scientific experiments.
Because of their experiments, we know which is more effective — email, direct mail, phone calls or in-person canvassing? (Canvassing.) We know whom campaigns should target in get-out-the-vote. (Supporters, not undecideds.) More than that, we know exactly how effective pretty much every tactic is. Their experiments changed the study of politics forever.
But it’s not just them. Other chapters show how new data-mining techniques allow politicians to guess whom you (and your neighbors) will be voting for without ever having asked. What you watch on television, what you order through the mail, what bus you take to work, what kind of alcohol you drink — all of these things, when taken together, tell campaigns whether they should spend money targeting you or not. Scientific studies tell political operatives that simple mail is more effective than fancy mail, that getting people to plan their voting schedule is far more effective than simply telling them to vote, and on and on.
The most effective strategy to get you to vote? Sending your neighbors your voting history. (Whether you voted or not, not whom you voted for — the former is public information … who knew?) Obviously, campaigns are a little reluctant to be linked to this particularly tactic, but they are still exploiting this knowledge to send you scurrying to the polls.
The Victory Lab is actually a broad survey of many of the great innovations in political campaigns from the last century. But it also tells us a remarkable amount about today — why Rick Perry runs some of the most effective campaigns in the nation, why the Democrats actually beat expectations in nearly every 2010 Senate race and how the Obama campaign could predict — with some degree of certainty — the preferences of every single voter in the country.
We haven’t figured out politics entirely, of course. Polls are sometimes wrong. Get-out-the-vote is never going to be anywhere near 100 percent effective. Mitt Romney genuinely believed he was going to win. But, as Issenberg shows us, campaigns are getting more sophisticated (and definitely more manipulative) every day.
Perhaps most surprisingly, “The Victory Lab” is a good read. For a book so statistics-heavy, so genuine in its admiration of scientific experiments, it is remarkably enjoyable. Above all, it will help you understand with a little more sophistication exactly why Barack Obama was clogging up your inbox.