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The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns

Sasha Issenberg

Armed with research from behavioral psychology and randomized experiments that treat voters as unwitting guinea pigs, the smartest campaigns now believe they know who you will vote for even before you do.

Excerpted from the Prologue from The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns by Sasha Issenberg. Copyright © 2012 by Sasha Issenberg. Published by Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

How to Win An Election Without Anyone Knowing

The ads aired by the two candidates in the 2010 Colorado U.S. Senate race told the story of the ideological war that defined that mid-term election. Michael Bennet, a freshman Democrat appointed to replace a man who had become one of Barack Obama’s cabinet secretaries, was deeply in hock to a liberal White House. Tea Party Republican challenger Ken Buck was— or so went the punditry and Bennet’s attacks—too conservative for the moderate, suburbanizing state.

Meanwhile, one million letters being delivered to Democratic-leaning Coloradoans in the last days of the race made no mention of either candidate, their allegiances, or the issues that separated them. They lacked any allusion to the ideological split riving the nation or reference to the policy consequences of a change in party control of the Senate. The folded pieces of laser-printed white paper were designed to be ugly, with a return address referring to a sender whose name voters were unlikely to recognize. The sender thanked the recipient by first name for having voted in 2008 and then said she looked forward to being able to express such gratitude again after the coming elections. The letter, dispassionate in tone and startlingly personal in content, might have inspired most recipients to dispatch it to a trash can with no strong feeling other than being oddly unsettled by its arrival.

It was not only in Colorado where communications in the last days before the 2010 elections seemed out of whack with such a feral season in American politics. Across the country on the Sunday night before the election, millions of Democrats received an e-mail from Obama’s seemingly dormant campaign apparatus, Organizing for America, with a gently worded reminder that they had “made a commitment to vote in this election” and that “the time has come to make good on that commitment. Think about when you’ll cast your vote and how you’ll get there.”

The voters who received either the Colorado letter or the Organizing for America message had likely never encountered anything like them before. At a moment when many candidates, admen, pundits, and organizers thought that the way to get their allies to the polls was to implore them through television ads to consider the election’s high stakes and respond in kind, these tactics, designed to go undetected by media coverage, aimed to push buttons that many voters didn’t even know they had. The people who had scripted the messages and carefully selected their recipients aimed to exploit eternal human vulnerabilities—such as the desire to fit in or not to be seen as a liar—in order to turn layabouts into voters.

The man who had sent the million letters in white envelopes did the quick math after the Colorado election from his post thousands of miles away. Hal Malchow was a middle-aged Mississippian who had spent his life conniving new ways to win elections, except for a brief detour into securities law that ended when he realized that writing the contracts to guard against complex financial schemes was less fun than trying to hatch them. Now he was playing a different angle, and calculated that the psychological influence he had exerted through his letters would improve turnout among recipients by 2.5 percent. That would mean that his language had created 25,000 new voters, most of them carefully selected to be likely votes for the incumbent. Bennet had lagged Buck for much of the year and had never approached the 50 percent threshold that many experts say is necessary in pre-election polls for an incumbent to expect victory. There was further evidence of a gap in partisan enthusiasms: at the time the polls opened, 74,000 fewer Democrats had returned their early-vote ballots than Republicans. But on election day, something was pushing Bennet even with Buck, and by the time Malchow turned in for the night the two candidates were separated by only hundreds of votes.

The next morning, he awoke to good news from the west. Bennet had pulled ahead of Buck, and was on his way to winning the race by 15,000 votes. His victory would help to keep the Senate in Democratic control. Malchow was having fun.

COLORADO WAS ONE of the rare sources of cheer for Democrats in an otherwise disastrous set of midterm elections in 2010. Party wise men were eager to mine grand lessons from the Rockies; if only they could figure out what made Colorado resist a national conservative wave, they could use Bennet’s strategy as a model for Obama’s reelection two years later. “The Bennet thing was pretty instructive,” Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, told the National Journal in a postmortem. “The contrast he drew with Buck was very meaningful.”

The people who explain politics for a living—the politicians themselves, their advisers, the media who cover them—love to reach tidy conclusions like this one. Elections are decided by charismatic personalities, strategic maneuvers, the power of rhetoric, the zeitgeist of the political moment. The explainers cloak themselves in loose-fitting theories because they offer a narrative comfort, unlike the more honest acknowledgment that elections hinge on the motivations of millions of individual human beings and their messy, illogical, often unknowable psychologies. In fact, Bennet could have won the Senate seat because of major demographic changes and ideological fault lines around delicate cultural issues, or because of a single letter that exerted a subtle dose of peer pressure on its recipients— or hundreds of other factors big and small that played a part in changing people’s minds or getting them to vote.

The political craft thrives on that ambiguity. It allows just about any-one involved to take credit for good results or attribute blame for poor ones, confident of never being proven wrong. After a positive result on election night, everything a winning campaign did looks brilliant. When a campaign loses, consultants usually blame the candidate or the moment— and there rarely seem to be professional consequences for those who had set the strategy or tactics. Longevity, as well as the aura of wisdom that comes from it, is a political operative’s most valued trait.

Over a generation, helping Americans choose their leaders has grown into a $ 6-billion-per-year industry. But the new profession hums along on a mixture of tradition and inertia, unable to learn from its successes or its failures. The tools available to campaign operatives can do little to explain what makes someone vote —and few of the people toiling inside campaign war rooms seem disturbed by this gap in their knowledge. “It’s probably the only industry in the world where there’s no market research,” says Dave Carney, the top strategist on the launch of Texas governor Rick Perry’s presidential campaign. “Most things are done with only one check,” says Steve Rosenthal, a Democratic consultant who works closely on campaigns with many of the left’s top interest groups. “People’s guts.”

The unheralded arrival of the gently threatening letters in Colorado mailboxes marked the maturation of a tactical revolution against that kind of gut politics. The first stirrings had come a decade earlier, in the wake of the 2000 presidential vote, which shifted on election night from a contest between electoral strategists to a tussle among lawyers. What seemed at the time to be a low-stakes election would have a major effect on the way campaigns were waged. The narrow, almost accidental quality of George W. Bush’s victory— decided by 537 votes in Florida, or really just one on the Supreme Court—provoked a reexamination of where votes come from.

Seemingly small boosts of two or three percentage points quickly became indispensable components of a victory formula, and the intellectual hierarchy of thinking about campaigns changed accordingly. Turnout, the unsexy practice of mobilizing known supporters to vote, could no longer be dismissed by campaign leadership as little more than a logistically demanding civics project to be handled by junior staff or volunteers. Campaigns could not obsess only over changing minds through mass media. “Many strategists had been believers that ‘big things are all that matter in campaigns’—the big events, the big TV spots, the debates, the convention and the VP pick,” says Adrian Gray, who worked in the Bush White House and on both of Bush’s campaigns. “After 2000, for the first time a lot of people who shared that sentiment started to believe that there is a lot that can be done on the margins.”

The result has been an ongoing, still unsettled battle between the two parties for analytical supremacy, a fight that Bush data analyst Alex Gage likens to an “information arms race.” A new era of statistical accountability has been introduced to a trade governed largely by anecdote and lore. Each side has its own sobriquets for the intellectual rebels—Karl Rove boasted of his “propellerheads” and Rick Perry’s campaign of its “eggheads,” while those on the left were happy to call themselves “geeks.” They have made their cases in the PowerPoint palimpsest that inevitably arrives when an industry quickly learns to appreciate its own data. Suddenly, the crucial divide within the consulting class is not between Democrats and Republicans, or the establishment and outsiders, but between these new empiricists and the old guard.

The latter can be found in both parties, and it was a constellation of new-guard academics and political consultants on the left who had mastered the psychological tool used in the Colorado mailer. Six years before, one of them had first had the idea of ominously reminding citizens that whether or not they vote is a matter of public record. In the next few elections, the language and presentation had been refined through serendipitous collaboration unusual in politics, flowing effortlessly between operatives and academic researchers who previously had neither the opportunity nor inclination to work together. Functioning in a growing laboratory culture, they had jerry-rigged a research-and-design function onto an industry that long resisted it. And by the summer of 2010, they had perfected the politics of shame. It was only a matter of time before a desperate campaign, or interest group, would summon the audacity to deploy it.

TWO DAYS AFTER the 2010 election, while Colorado election officials were still counting ballots, Hal Malchow sat in his office in Washington, D.C., pleased to see Bennet on his way to victory. A sign hanging on the wall neatly summarized the self-satisfaction Malchow felt at moments like these: All progress in the world depends on the unreasonable man. He had spent more than three years obsessing over the technique he had used in his mailers. He had pored over the scholarly research that supported the use of what psychologists called social pressure, and he had finally persuaded the liberal group Women’s Voices Women’s Vote to overcome its fear of a backlash and send out letters to Colorado households likely to support Bennet but requiring an extra push to get to the polls.

The research had begun five years earlier. In 2005, a Michigan political consultant named Mark Grebner—whose glasses, stringy parted hair, eccentric polymathy, and relentless tinkering earned him comparisons to Ben Franklin—had written to two Yale political science professors who he knew were interested in finding new ways to motivate people to vote. The next year, they collaborated on an experiment in Michigan in which they sent voters a copy of their own public vote histories, along with their neighbors’, and a threat to deliver an updated set after the election. It was marvelously effective, increasing turnout among those who received it by 20 percent. But no candidate or group wanted to be associated with a tactic that looked a lot like bullying—and a bit like blackmail.

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