by Alex Derry
While covering the 2008 presidential campaign as a national political reporter for The Boston Globe, having reported on U.S. politics for the better part of a decade, Sasha Issenberg realized how much of the “modern campaign enterprise” he and many reporters like him were missing in their coverage.
The tendency of campaign operatives and the media to reduce the entire election cycle to one big story – a candidate’s charisma, the role of a swing state, or a single deciding policy issue – was essentially a cover for the fact that for the most part, nobody knew anything about why campaigns were or weren’t successful. It was what Issenberg calls “a crisis of knowledge.”
Issenberg discussed how big data is changing the way elections are won, the subject of his book The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, on November 27 at the Isabel Bader Theatre in Toronto. The event was moderated by Susan Delacourt, senior political writer for The Toronto Star, and hosted by Samara.
“The people who explain politics for a living – the politicians themselves, their advisers, the media who cover them – love to reach tidy conclusions,” writes Issenberg in The Victory Lab. “The explainers cloak themselves in loose-fitting theories because they offer a narrative comfort, unlike the more honest acknowledgement that elections hinge on the motivations of millions of individual human beings and their messy, illogical, often unknowable psychologies.”
The new political science
Speaking to a capacity crowd, Issenberg detailed how the emphasis on “macro-narratives” ignored new innovations from two crucial sectors – commercial marketing and academic social sciences – that were providing political campaigns a “newfound ability to empirically measure what they were doing, and by extension, to do it better.”
Issenberg notes wryly that political campaigns are “basically the worst corporation you could possibly imagine,” with short life spans and little incentive to learn new tactics from past mistakes.
In 2000, political campaigns realized the potential of the corporate world, and their vast troves of consumer data, to change the way campaigns courted voters. While campaigns had access to census data and voter registration records, which revealed the basics – names, addresses, gender, age, ethnicity, party affiliation, and vote history – consumer data revealed hundreds of data points through things like contest warranty forms and questionnaires. By combining voter registration information with consumer data and running statistical models, campaigns were now able to engage in the sophisticated process of micro-targeting voters.
Making voting less "sad and lonely"
Campaign volunteers, says Issenberg, have become “unpaid data collectors for campaigns,” whose one-on-one conversations with voters at the front door or over the phone become valuable. These volunteers were not only getting out the vote, they were conducting field research that was helping campaigns understand how voters engage with politics.
Because micro-targeting allowed campaigns to analyze an individual’s political behaviour, people in politics turned to social science to further understand and influence voter habits. Researchers began conducting what Issenberg calls “pharmaceutical trials for politics,” such a 1998 Yale study that randomly assigned residents in New Haven, CT, with “doses of political contact,” which included a pre-election postcard reminder, a phone call, an visit from a canvasser, and a control group that received no contact. What these studies revealed is that an individual’s action (i.e. voting) can be impacted if it is made to seem popular, not as “a sad lonely thing people are forced to do.”
Implications for political reporters
But how did the media miss this seismic shift in political campaigning, and what qualifies as good journalism in this environment of increased micro-targeting and declining campaign resources? Delacourt, herself a seasoned Canadian political journalist, posed this question to Issenberg, who points to the massive amount of media attention devoted to horse-race polls. Such coverage is ultimately flawed by the belief that a single macro-narrative can explain everything. “Good horse-race coverage should admit what is unknowable, and good coverage needs to acknowledge what is out of our reach.”
It’s clear that our understanding of the innovations that Issenberg talks about in The Victory Lab is in its infancy. The sophistication and complexity of micro-targeting, with it’s vast quantities of data, algorithms and cross-referencing, is daunting to the average political observer. It’s probable that the effect of big data on voter engagement will diminish over time as voters become more familiar with these techniques. But one thing is certain: campaigns have started treating voters like people again, and they are responding by casting a ballot.
Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns and a columnist for Slate and Monocle, addressed a capacity audience in Toronto at the Isabel Bader Theatre on November 27. The liveblog of the event, hosted by J-Source, is available here. You can follow Sasha Issenberg on Twitter: @sissenberg
Alex Derry is a freelance journalist in Toronto, whose work has appeared in The Toronto Star, Maclean’s, and The Mark. He also blogs for Samara as a volunteer contributor, and can be followed on Twitter: @alexderry
The Victory Lab in pictures: Check out photos from the event taken by Samara volunteer and U of T political science student Mana SadeghiPour.