Getting inside the heads of US voters
To this end, an entire body of research has sprung up to rigorously test and measure the efficacy of different approaches, from robocalls to TV ads to knocking on doors. For instance, it has been demonstrated that a letter thanking someone for voting in the past can boost turnout by more than
2 percentage points; and a knock on the door from a canvasser is far more effective than a call from a phone volunteer.
“When put together the campaigns have far better tools for sorting through the electorate, and knowing whom they should engage and when, and because of experiments, have much better confidence that they know how to engage them in ways that will actually impact their behaviour,” says Issenberg.
How likely is it that these tools and techniques will be applied here? We have much stricter information privacy rules in Europe, preventing much of the data collation that microtargeting relies on. But as one senior Irish political organiser put it to me, we already have a highly accurate and granular understanding of the electorate in this country, and it comes from the tallies from every ballot box in every election. Combined with the electoral register and the record of who has voted, these tallies give an invaluable map of the electorate’s voting habits, one that every party in the democratic world “would kill to have”, as the organiser put it.
Furthermore, the nature of proportional representation means that Irish parties have to appeal to a much broader spectrum of the electorate in order to attain enough preferences, which renders a lot of the advantages of microtargeting redundant.
But undoubtedly some elements of this approach will catch on here. As Issenberg describes it, the benefits are just too significant to ignore. “These all affect races at the margins – they won’t get people to vote for candidates they don’t like, or think the economy is good if it’s bad or make them change their impressions of a party.
“But they are things that can make campaigns a lot more efficient about knowing where they should devote their resources, whom they should be trying to persuade and whom they should be trying to mobilise, and have given them a much better understanding in behavioural terms about how you motivate people to vote . . . All these experiments are things that can get you a boost of one point or two points or three points, but if this race is that close, then those interventions add up.”
It remains to be seen if Obama’s lead in data-driven campaigning will make the difference on November 6th, but his role in transforming the fundamental approach to running an election campaign might end up being his most surprising legacy.
The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg is published by Crown. See thevictorylab.com