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Review | The Victory Lab By Sasha Issenberg

Posted by Rebecca G. Aguilar, M.Ed. on August 31, 2012

The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg

ISBN-13: 9780307954794
Publisher: Crown
Publication date: 9/11/2012
Pages: 368

The 2012 presidential election may very well pit two cash-rich, data driven campaigns in a contest that will determine how well they know their voters. Mitt Romney is armed with “the Architect” Karl Rove and unlimited amounts of Super Pac money. Barack Obama’s ballast is a campaign forecasting laboratory with a vast fundraising network.

Sasha Issenberg writes about the “the far less glamorous art of turning out voters” and the ways geeks have changed campaigning in his latest book The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns.

According to Issenberg, phone calls, canvassing, direct mail and personalized text messages are the tools campaigns use to change people’s minds or get them to vote.

“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.”

The Victory Lab reveals how a culture of inquiry in campaigns has led to innovative methods for mobilizing voters. Candidates have hired academics who question electoral assumptions and practices in GOTV campaigns. Consultants have replaced instinct and guesswork with field testing and empirical methods. And research has helped campaigns direct money to the ground game to increase the likelihood of winning elections.

Issenberg writes, “Elections hinge on the motivations of millions of individual human beings and their messy, illogical psychologies.”

Behavioral psychologist Todd Rogers has compared voting to a social experience versus a consumer choice in which decisions are weighed against benefits and costs. He came up with an evidence-based script for turning out votes during the 2008 Democratic presidential primary in Pennsylvania.

When on Tuesday will you vote? In the morning? At lunchtime? In the afternoon? Or in the evening?

Will you drive to the precinct? Walk? Or take public transportation?

Will you travel to the precinct from your home? Your place of work? Or from someplace else?

According to Issenberg, Rogers applied plan-making effect which suggests that people are more likely to perform an action if they have visualized themselves doing it in advance.

A canvassing coordinator can nudge people to vote by tricking them into rehearsing their Election Day routines and forcing them to develop a plan to vote.

Issenberg cites Mike Podhorzer, Hal Malchow and Todd Rogers at the Analyst Institute for applying the psychological principle that voters don’t make rational choices based on self-interest. They and others at the progressive clearinghouse for evidence-based voter turnout support the research of Robert Cialdini (Influence) and Richard Thaler (Nudge). They see voting as “self-expressive social behavior.”

Experiments with campaign letters—“our records indicate that you voted in the 2008 election” followed with “thanks for your good citizenship”— show that social pressure can nudge voters to the polls.

Another equally important finding in The Victory Lab comes from Get Out the Vote! How to Increase Voter Turnout written by Donald Green and Alan Gerber and published in 2004. The two Yale political scientists conducted field experiments and found that door-to-door canvassing is the most cost-effective method for mobilizing voters. Personalized, face-to-face conversations could be attributed to moving more voters to cast a ballot than mass email and robo calls.

Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign was also a victory for the empiricists, who relied on data and metrics to earn successes as well as loyalty from campaign leadership.

According to Issenberg, political consultant and direct mail expert Hal Malchow developed a healthy cynicism for attempts to appeal to civic duty, even in progressive campaigns.

Malchow was surprised to find a successful direct mail package targeting African-Americans on their eighteenth birthdays and framing their first election with the historic moment of an Obama presidency.

How could this earnest appeal to civic duty be explained when others had failed? Was it as simple as an opportunity to vote for a viable African-American candidate merged with the hopes of a young, energetic electorate?

Issenberg writes about Malchow’s reaction, “He fell uncharacteristically silent, alone for a minute with the pleasing thought that there might still be a place in political life for innocent uplift.”

The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg is a highly worthwhile read about the rise of geeks in campaigns and the application of inquiry and empirical methods to mobilize voters.

Category: Nonfiction, Politics

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