The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns Hardcover – Sep 11 2012
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“Indispensable. . . . Issenberg has a firm grounding in the political universe. . . . [He] paints his insurgents in heroic terms, putting the spotlight on campaign warriors few of us have ever heard of. . . . [The Victory Lab is] a magical mystery tour of contemporary campaigns. By the end, a lot of the mystery will become clear, and you’ll know a whole lot more about what’s behind those calls and letters jamming your phone lines and mailboxes.” —Jeff Greenfield, The Washington Post
“[The Victory Lab] traces an under-reported element of the evolution of campaign tactics over nearly a half-century in an unusually accessible and engaging manner. . . . A timely, rare, and valuable attempt to unveil the innovations revolutionizing campaign politics.” —The New Republic
“Brainy.” —New York
“A magnificently reported and wonderfully written book, full of eye-opening revelations and a colorful cast of characters whose groundbreaking strategies and tactics have injected 21st-century science into politics and changed it forever in the process. The Victory Lab is essential for anyone who wants to understand what really goes on along the campaign trail—and a delight for those who simply enjoy a terrific read.” —John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, authors of Game Change
“Sasha Issenberg cracks open the secretive realm of modern campaigns, revealing a revolution that is influencing not only who wins elections but also the fate of the nation. This is a terrific and important book.” —David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z
“Sasha Issenberg is our most acute observer of the modern political campaign. With vivid portraiture and crystal-clear prose, he takes us beyond the charge-and-counter-charge, the rallies and stump speeches, to show us the hidden persuaders. This is the politics you'll never see on the nightly news.” —Richard Ben Cramer, author of What it Takes
About the Author
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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Top Customer Reviews
The book’s narrative is a collection of smaller stories. There are brief biographies of those who developed and refined new approaches to collecting and using voter data. There are success and failure stories of various campaigns and of major battles within those campaigns. And there are the specific tactics these people deploy. It is impossible to list them all, so here are a few:
- Using public records, pollsters mailed each person in a precinct a list of who had voted and who had not voted in the last election—along with an announcement of their plan to mail out updated lists after the next election. This increased voter turnout by 20%. When this strategy as put into practice, the mailers went only to voters likely to support the pollster’s candidate, resulting in a selective increase in voter turnout.
- It is very difficult to sell new tactics.Read more ›
Big data, behavioural psychology and microtargeting are here to stay and will only get more refined as technology and techniques improve. This book is an early foray into the new, data-driven politics of the future.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The Victory Lab traces a nearly century-long academic quest that began with a simple question: Why do some people not vote? Extensive laboratory and field research has thrown some fascinating light on this question, which goes to the heart of what democracy means. Which people vote affects more than the result of an election, it affects group identities and how people feel about the result and how the elected officials act, which in turn set the political environment for the next election, and thereby is an essential determinant of the nature of civil society. The most interesting thinkers profiled in the book deal with these issues in their full complexity.
Some of the theory and experimental data developed in this quest might be useful for influencing close elections. This is the main focus of the book, which leads the author to spend too much time on shallow thinkers with narrow partisan (or in some cases merely financial) goals. Yes, it's impressive how much you can influence people's decision whether to vote through simple micro-targeted threats, bribes and even mere contacts. But it's not clear that these are cost-effective ways to influence elections.
One crucial assumption is the extra votes you shake out of the tree fall to candidates in the same proportion as voluntary voters in the same subgroup. There could be differences in voting patterns between eager and reluctant voters, and the means for stimulating voting may influence the vote as well. Moreover, the absolute numbers are so small, a few percent of the microtargeted population, that even a small effect on the rest might overwhelm the change due to the additional voters. There are no barriers to entry in this business, so any advantage the techniques confer could be quickly erased by the other side. Some of the techniques may work in small academic or pilot studies because they are unusual, but might fail when applied on a meaningful scale. Perhaps most important, the election has to be almost a dead heat before these tricks can make any difference so at most they are the final crack of the whip that sends one racehorse a nose ahead of another rather than the secret to winning elections.
Behavioral psychology and quantitative methods may someday become a secret science of winning elections, but the author wildly oversells his evidence by claiming that day has already arrived. It seems more likely to me that these ideas will refine the idea of democracy and help public-spirited people build better elections, that lead to a better society. Anyway, I hope that's true.
Perhaps the most important lesson that campaigns have learned from the political scientists is that finding small, refined batches of voters really matters. This is a strategy that is very cost effective and runs counter to the traditional radio and television buys and newspaper ads favored by the consultants. Making this a part of the overall game plan proved to be one of the keys to the success of Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. I learned that it is now possible to create mailings aimed at small clusters of voters that have been "micro-targeted" by the campaign. Researchers have discovered that targeted mailings with themes emphasizing civic duty, community solidarity and touting the idea that "your vote could make the difference" can be surprisingly effective. Likewise ongoing research has uncovered the fact that personal contact with the voter in the days leading up to an election can yield impressive results in increasing turnout for your candidate or cause. Sasha Issenberg chronicles how several of these campaign tactics turned the tide in favor of the Democrats in a pair of key U.S. Senate races in 2010. Issenberg also introduces his readers to a number of the key players who were responsible for formulating these innovative and highly successful techniques.
While the subject matter is indeed quite interesting I have a couple of major problems with "The Victory Lab". First and foremost I believe that this book is much too long. In my view Sasha Issenberg could have effectively made his case in about 50-75 fewer pages. Frankly, I began to lose interest about two-thirds of the way through the book. In addition the author's frequent use of insider jargon proved to be a real obstacle for me. It appears that the target audience for "The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns" are those in academia, political operatives and bloggers who are deeply immersed in this stuff. This is not a particularly easy read for general audiences. In my view this was a good idea for a book that just misses the mark. As such I am only able to muster a lukewarm recommendation.
The two basic themes that undergird Issenberg's account are micro-targeting of prospective voters and random assignment of treatment and control status to permit interpretable comparisons. Micro-targeting means gaining access to individuals and small, homogeneous groups rather than using data aggregated to the precinct, county, or other geographical level. Micro-targeting enables political analysts and operatives to identify conveniently small groups that do not correspond to pre-drawn geographical or administrative boundaries and to use their peculiar characteristics to focus get-out-the-vote campaigns and messages tailored to enhance the appeal of a specific candidate. The shopworn,conventional, broad-brush alternative is to use existing data sets that aggregate measures to a higher level, such as the county.
As an example, after the 2004 presidential election that pitted George W. Bush against John Kerry, I had a data set consisting of all 3140 counties in the u.S. Using a variation on conventional multiple regression analysis, I was able to determine that the most powerful county-level predictor of the percentage voting for Bush was a fairly crude measure of "traditional family values." It was easy to identify the counties that were unusually high on the "traditional family values" measure, and in subsequent elections candidates might have reasoned that these counties would be favorably disposed to Republicans generally, not just to Bush, and they might have targeted their get-out-the-vote efforts accordingly. Sounds plausible, but the "traditional family values" variable had a very strong positive correlation with income, which could mean that many of the families were wealthy enough to employ live-in help. The impact of a get-out-the-vote drive, as a result, might be diminished for Republicans because it would also energize the low-income, perhaps Black or Latino, cooks, housekeepers, gardeners, and handymen, who were more likely to vote for a Democrat.
Similarly, the "traditional family values" variable had a strong positive correlation with voter turnout. This might lead one to the conclusion that resources devoted to increasing voter turnout would be wasted if they were expended on Republican voters who would turn out anyway. Instead, the prospective voters actually affected might be the hired help, perhaps low-income minorities who, again, would vote for Democrats.
However, micro-targeting of smaller, homogeneous aggregates or individuals themselves provides a way around this broad-brush difficulty, enabling us to concentrate on just those citizens we actually want to reach. As Issenberg makes clear, however, assembling data adequate to this task is time-consuming and very expensive, and it requires a long-term commitment to maintaining and updating data files, as well as employing analysts with the statistical and measurement skills needed to put it to good use. Nevertheless, micro-targeting -- reaching out and touching individuals and small groups -- is now a staple technique used by both parties.
Issenberg's second basic theme, use of randomized experiments, makes micro-targeting, as well as more conventional approaches, much more effective. For example, suppose we had used micro-targeting to identify clusters of affluent "traditional family values" voters who, contrary to convention, cannot be relied on to turn out on election day. Randomization assures that any treatments, such as mailings to non-voters that include a call to vote, will not be confounded with other variables, and we can vary the wording of the message, compare results of different messages from one cluster to another, and decide which is most effective. Subsequent work can then incorporate these insights.
It remains true, however, that micro-targeting and random assignment as used in The Victory Lab, are, for the most part, exercises in naked empiricism and guess work. Methodologically they may be exemplary, but substantively and theoretically they tend to be quite thin, relying heavily on expensive trial and error and indiscriminate data dredging. This may help to explain Democrats' disastrous performance in the 2010 midterm elections. Issenberg very briefly mentions 2010, but he does not begin to do it justice as a challenge to the efficacy of micro-targeting and random assignment. I think that a great deal of theoretical work, such as that reported by Robert Entman (2012) in Scandal and Silence, needs to be done to take more uncertainty out of even the most methodologically rigorous political campaigns.
The Victory Lab does a good job of documenting the introduction of methodological precision into data-driven election campaigns. However, Issenberg leaves the reader with the impression that political science is nothing but more and better analyses of voting behavior, and that a rich substantive and theoretical literature is not necessary to guiding the efforts of those who collect and analyze data. Both impressions are wrong.
Issenberg obliquely acknowledges that contemporary developments aimed at more effectively influencing voting behavior may be rightly interpreted as manipulation, unscrupulously useful to anyone with the resources to employ them, whatever their political objectives. I find this "value free" framework unsettling, hardly the stuff of democracy as most of us conceive it.
The Victory Lab is an interesting, even if unduly long and philosophically short-sighted book. I benefited from reading it and would recommend it to others.
Sasha Issenberg has written a book, "The Victory Lab", for those political geeks. Certainly the politically unaware or politically uninterested would not get much out of Issenberg's book. But he looks at past elections to see the tangibles and the intangibles that influenced the results. He looks at what political advisers - that strange group of ultra-political geeks - using statistics and new computer models plot the campaigns of the future. Issenberg introduces the reader to the behind-the-scene political consultants. The book may be a little too long, as other reviewers have already noted, but what Issenberg writes is fascinating.
Overall, the feeling I got after reading each chapter was "same story as the last chapter, but this time the analysts gained a little more credibility than the previous election cycle."
That said, I do believe everyone involved in campaigning for public office or ballot measures ought to read this, especially if they want the best chance at winning. If you fit into that category, or if you're thinking of getting into politics, you'll gain tremendous insights into the past 100 years of campaigning, and you can learn from other people's mistakes (and what the winners did right). A big golden nugget for me was learning that what helped you win "last time" won't help you win "this time." However, that same message could have been conveyed in a shorter book.
Interestingly, the day I was reading the book to write this review, I saw a news headline that read "Obama campaign deploys data mining operation." Given that this book reveals the depth to which Obama relied on microtargeting techniques in 2008, and and given that the book also outlines how analysts can mine increasingly detailed data with each election cycle, I can only imagine the depth to which Obama's campaign is excavating, sorting, and using data to direct their actions in 2012.
Business Application: As a business person, I was hoping that some of the practices described in the book would help for developing marketing campaigns in the business world. Alas, no such luck. As the author points out, the intense methods described are for running a one-time political campaign that culminates in one desired action from a person (a "vote") on one particular day. After reviewing the techniques described, I don't think they would transfer economically into business. Sure, making decisions based on target market data permeates the text, but the techniques described are for political campaigns.
With that, the book probably wouldn't have much appeal for anyone outside of politics. I found myself wanting to lend it to a friend of mine who's heavily involved in state and national political campaigns.
Overall the book is a little too repetitive in its theme, and therefore it's a tad too long.
I'd give it four stars if you're in politics and have never studied microtargeting before, because you'll learn a lot. I give it three and a half stars for the rest of us, which I round down to three (Amazon meaning = "it's okay") because the book is about 20 percent longer than it needs to be.