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Prescription Drug Trials for Democracy

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How to muffle such a potent weapon so that it could be used in the course of regular campaigns became an obsession of the Analyst Institute, a consortium quietly founded in 2006 by liberal groups looking to coordinate their increasingly ambitious research agendas. The Analyst Institute was a hybrid of classic Washington traits: the intellectual ambition of a think tank, the legal privacy of a for-profit consulting firm, and the hush-hush sensibility of a secret society. But its culture derived from the laboratory. The Analyst Institute was founded on a faith in the randomized-control experiment, which had migrated in the middle of the twentieth century from agriculture to medicine as a unique instrument for isolating the effects of individual fertilizers and vaccines. Social scientists later adopted field experiments, transforming research in everything from credit-card marketing to developing-world economics. Around 2000, such experiments found their way into politics, with voters as their unwitting guinea pigs. Over a decade these “prescription drug trials for democracy,” in the words of Rock the Vote president Heather Smith, have upended much of what the political world thought it knew about how voters’ minds work, and dramatically changed the way that campaigns approach, cajole, and manipulate them.


The Analyst Institute’s founding director, a psychologist named Todd Rogers, always liked to remind people that these behavioral science interventions couldn’t alter a race’s fundamental dynamics. No technique could do that; a good candidate or a bad economy would still set the conditions of an election. But experimental insights could decide close races— by nudging turnout up two points here, six points there —and none has proven as powerful and promising as Grebner’s social-pressure breakthrough.


It took three years of trial and error by academics and operatives, including Malchow, until he settled on softer, more friendly language — thanking people for having voted in the past as opposed to threatening them if they didn’t in the future —that delivered impressive results in a randomized experiment. During a test conducted during New Jersey’s 2009 gubernatorial elections, such a letter had increased turnout among voters who received it by 2.5 percent. Through other tests, Malchow had found that many political messages were most effective when delivered in understated white typed envelopes, as opposed to multicolor glossy mailers, and so he packaged the Colorado social-pressure letters in a way he hoped would resemble an urgent notice from the taxman. “People want information, they don’t want advertising,” Malchow said. “When they see our fingerprints on this stuff, they believe it less.”


The fact that Americans were tiring of political communication was, in many ways, a testament to the success of a profession Malchow had done much to develop. His métier was the direct-mail piece, the postbox- stuffing brochure so often dismissed as junk mail. That form, and Malchow’s career, had emerged in the long mid-1980s shadow of television and relegated Malchow to a second-class status in the consulting world’s star system. Direct mail is a staple of the category of campaign activity known as “voter contact,” distinguished—as compared with media advertising—by its ability to hit a preselected individual with precision. This is the way most voters interact directly with campaigns: the phone calls that interrupt dinner, the knock on the door from a young canvasser, leaflets stuffing the mailbox as election day approaches, personalized text-message blasts. Even as these voter-contact activities often go ignored by the people who write about politics, campaigns continue to spend money on these tactics, and lavishly—as much as a half-billion dollars per presidential campaign season.


Political mail has been perhaps the least glamorous of all the voter-contact tools. At a young age, however, Malchow was drawn to the fact that brochures, unlike broadcast ads or rally coverage on the nightly news, could be unexpectedly personal. Working with mail gave him a distinctive perspective on the electorate —which he saw as an array of individuals rather than a puzzle of blocs and zones—and the ambition to measure the effect of his work on a similar scale. As a result, Malchow had ended up playing a key role in the two most radical innovations in political communication: the use of field experiments to measure cause and effect, and the so-called microtargeting that allows campaigns to confidently address individual voter instead of the broader public.


But even as Malchow found a growing circle of allies in academia and liberal interest groups, partisan campaigns remained skeptical of ideas that would radically disrupt the way they thought about how votes are won. For years, when Malchow couldn’t convince campaigns to use the microtargeting techniques he said would help them locate otherwise unidentifiable pockets of persuadable voters, he paid for them himself, at a total loss of around eight hundred thousand dollars. The challenge of innovation came to excite him more than the predictable terms of partisan conflict. In fact, Malchow’s giddiness—perceptible as his eyes open wide behind his glasses, and his words break into a gallop — emerged most readily not when he was plotting how to win a specific race for a candidate but when he was figuring out a way to run all campaigns more intelligently.


Even amid the low points of 2009 and 2010 for Democrats, Malchow was heartened to see that the party’s few successful campaigns were ones that had some of the most creative analytics on their side. In Nevada, Senator Harry Reid’s pollster, Mark Mellman, tested the campaign’s messages through a continuous cycle of randomized online experiments, allowing him to see which people were actually moved by specific arguments, not only those who told a survey taker that they might be. In the same race, one independent group backing Reid used data on how neighborhoods voted on ballot initiatives (which show voter opinions on controversial issues like marijuana, taxes, and eminent domain) to define the political ideology of election precincts with a nuance impossible to gauge in partisan vote totals. Along Lake Tahoe, which has become home to wealthy California refugees, Reid’s allies defined pockets of rich libertarians they thought were winnable. So they downplayed Reid’s statewide message portraying Republican challenger Sharron Angle as an antigovernment extremis intent on dismantling Social Security—a stance the Tahoe targets could in fact find appealing—and instead played up her conservative views on social issues. Reid won the state by five points, boosted by expanded margins in upscale redoubts like lakefront Incline Village.


Data-driven methods were carrying the day in parts of the political process where Malchow hadn’t even imagined they would have a use. When Al Franken’s lawyers began the 2008 Minnesota U.S. Senate recount by pondering which of ten thousand challenged absentee ballots they should work to have counted, they brought one of the campaign’s microtargeting experts into the strategy sessions. Andy Bechhoefer ran each of the disputed voters through the campaign’s database, which used a complex mix of personal and demographic information, along with polling, to give each voter a score of 1 to 100, predicting his or her likelihood of supporting Franken over his opponent, Norm Coleman. Armed with these scores, Bechhoefer was able not only to point lawyers to the unopened envelopes most likely to yield Franken votes but also to identify which of the secretary of state’s categories for excluding votes had put them in a rejected pile. With that knowledge, Franken’s attorneys drafted expansive legal arguments that covered entire categories of problems instead of merely contesting individual ballots in a piecemeal fashion.


Bechhoefer recounted this experience to one of the regular lunch sessions hosted by the Analyst Institute, each detail in the scheme transfixing Malchow. Step by step, Bechhoefer illustrated how lawyers were primed to defend absentee ballots that had been challenged for change-of-address discrepancies (which leaned Democratic) while hoping that those with witness-signature problems (tilting Republican) remained uncounted. At times, Franken’s lawyers watched their adversary challenge ballots they knew were almost certain to be votes for Coleman, only because the Republicans had not used such sophisticated methods to model them. Over an eight-month recount, Franken gradually turned a 477-vote deficit on election day into a 312-vote lead when Coleman’s last court challenge was exhausted in the summer of 2009, giving Democrats their sixtieth senator.

“Everybody in the Analyst Institute was grinning ear to ear—what a triumph,” says Malchow. “I was like a Cheshire cat. I thought this was the coolest thing I ever heard.”


THE POLITICAL BOOKSHELF is filled with works that have heralded epochal change: 1972 had The New Style in Election Campaigns, while 1981 brought The New Kingmakers, which profile the first generation of political consultants. Every time a fresh communication technology has become available, those who practice politics have been quick to announce that elections would be remade in its image “A campaign rally is three people around a television set,” Democratic media consultant Bob Shrum, who made his money from TV ads, boasted in 1986. A decade and a half later, Dick Morris predicted that television-focused media consultants like Shrum were about to be eclipsed by an emerging cadre who communicated online. “The current crop are like silent film stars—their skills will no longer be valuable in the Internet era,” Morris told the Washington Post in 2000.“They’re good at condensation, at the 30-second spot. The new environment of the Internet calls for elaboration, for expansiveness.”


Neither consultant’s prediction has been entirely right, ignoring less flashy but more influential shifts in how campaigns win votes. The scientific revolution in American electoral politics has relied on lots of technology, particularly to assemble and sift through large databases, but its most lasting impact may be a resurgence in lo-fi tactics. The genius alchemists behind microtargeting spend their days deciding where candidates should send postcards. A gubernatorial campaign in Texas conducted meticulous experiments to learn which was a more worthwhile use of its time and budget: sending the candidate to meet with a newspaper editorial board or to a barbecue restaurant filled with one hundred supporters. Within the headquarters of a presidential campaign widely heralded as the most technologically advanced in history, some strategists think their most impressive accomplishment wasn’t their iPhone app but the time when a staffer figured out how to buy ads on a bus whose route he was certain was used by voters the campaign was trying to reach.


By 2012, it has become impossible to correctly interpret campaign strategy without understanding the revolution in tactics. Some of the early decisions that shaped how the presidential race would be run were built on technical innovations invisible to the outside world. Texas governor Rick Perry considered withdrawing from select primary-season debates in part because the social scientists he had invited to run large-scale randomized- control experiments in an earlier race concluded that the candidate could have his biggest impact not through media appearances but through localized travel to targeted states. (In retrospect, no social scientist could have calculated how atrocious a debater Perry turned out to be.) Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who a decade earlier had been the first candidate in the country to use microtargeting formulas, knew he could hold back on committing resources to identify voters in Iowa because he had algorithms that would instantly tell him how every caucus-goer would be likely to vote even before they had made up their minds. And in Chicago, Barack Obama’s aides looking to expand the playing field against their Republican opponent thought they might be able to use psychological tricks—which had significantly reduced the cost of registering new voters—to remake the electorate in certain states in a way that could permanently confuse red and blue.


Electoral politics has quietly entered the twenty-first century by undoing its greatest excesses of the late twentieth. Just as architects have atoned for the vainglories of their field’s high-modernist period by pummeling its concrete superblocks and putting sleeping porches and Main Street–style shopping strips in their place, some electioneers are starting to conclude that political campaigns lost something when they became warped by broadcast waves. The campaign world’s most sophisticated new thinking about who votes and why, informed by an intuitive understanding of the political brain, has naturally turned attention to the individual as the fundamental unit of our politics. The revolutionaries are taking a politics distended by television’s long reach and restoring it to a human scale — even delivering, at times, a perfectly disarming touch of intimacy.


Our campaigns have not grown more humanistic because our candidates are more benevolent or their policy concerns more salient. In fact, over the last decade, public confidence in institutions—big business, the church, media, government—has declined dramatically. The political conversation has privileged the nasty and trivial. Yet during that period, election seasons have awakened with a new culture of volunteer activity. This cannot be credited to a politics inspiring people to hand over their time but rather to campaigns, newly alert to the irreplaceable value of a human touch, seeking it out. Finally campaigns are learning to quantify the ineffable —the value of a neighbor’s knock, of a stranger’s call, the delicate condition of being undecided—and isolate the moment where a behavior can be changed, or a heart won. Campaigns have started treating voters like people again.


Photo © David Fields found on Random House.com

Photo by © David Fields found
on Random House.com


Sasha Issenberg is a columnist for Slate and the Washington correspondent for Monocle. He covered the 2008 election as a national political correspondent for The Boston Globe, and his work has also appeared in New York, The Atlantic, and The New York Times Magazine. His first book, The Sushi Economy, was published in 2007.


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