Getting inside the heads of US voters
Behind the scenes of the US presidential election, a revolution is occurring which is likely to change the nature of electioneering forever – welcome to the era of data-driven politics, writes DAVIN O'DWYER
THE US PRESIDENTIAL election is the world’s most keenly followed political soap opera, and this year’s bout is proving no exception. But beneath the surface of this seemingly conventional campaign a revolution is occurring, shaping the contours of the race in ways that are barely perceptible to outsiders but which is likely to change the nature of electioneering forever.
On both sides of the aisle, armies of statisticians and number crunchers are transforming the art of campaigning into a science. Huge amounts of data are being processed and a wide array of experiments undertaken, all with the aim of bringing empirical rigour to a field that has long relied on hunches and intuition. Disciplines as diverse as behavioural psychology, econometrics and data analytics are being combined to more accurately target and influence potential voters. Welcome to the era of data-driven politics.
US journalist Sasha Issenberg has detailed this largely unheralded upheaval in his fascinating new book, The Victory Lab. It is rather snappily being described as “Moneyball for politics”, and it does share some characteristics with Michael Lewis’s celebrated look at how statistical analysis transformed baseball.
However, instead of analysing baseball players, the statisticians and social scientists that Issenberg profiles are analysing both the electorate and electioneering itself, with potentially dramatic results.
“All the interesting moments occur when the rather insular world of thinking about campaigns becomes shaped by interesting thinking and problem-solving from outside campaigns,” says Issenberg in a phone interview, describing the genesis of the revolution.
The Victory Lab sketches the history of such innovations, but pinpoints the George W Bush re-election campaign of 2004 and the groundbreaking Obama campaign of 2008 as watershed moments. “In 2004, it was the Bush world looking to the commercial world both for data and ways of thinking about marketing,” he says, “and in 2008 I think the Obama campaign was really shaped by expertise from academia and technology.”
That external expertise naturally took a fresh approach to the traditional problems that every campaign faces. In terms of the fabled “ground game”, the two big issues facing US political campaigns have long been determining who to target, and how. Identifying those voters who can be persuaded to vote for your candidate, and identifying those who are definitely going with your rival means you can be much more efficient in targeting mail-outs, email blasts and canvassing efforts.
And determining what issues in particular will resonate with any given voter can allow you to refine your message to a remarkable degree – an Obama for America fundraising email from last May came in 11 different varieties, each tailored for the individual recipient. How did they decide which voters would receive which mailout?