Friday, November 2, 2012

New Keys to Understanding Real American Voters

Sasha Issenberg, The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns

If it seems like the last several elections hit us with unusual urgency, with an unprecedented number of earth-shattering issues and bold proposals, you’re right. Not that life has become more fraught with peril and possibility (we could argue that), but the people who would become America’s leaders have grown more savvy in pursuing their goals. Journalist Sasha Issenberg unpacks several recent developments in the science of American elections.

For years, candidates and their handlers have run campaigns as largely intuitive enterprises. Office seekers took sweeping patterns of behavior for granted, assuming that, for instance, flyers and TV ads got the message out. They also assumed voters were rational actors, voting their own interests, and that they voted basically on the belief that their single votes could swing the election. These assumptions had no scientific basis; electioneers just took them for granted.

Nobody thought to test such assumptions with laboratory rigor until the 1920s, when Harold Gosnell subjected different voter groups to targeted messaging. This was just after his home base of Chicago had instituted primary voting, letting candidates get on the ballot without the patronage of monolithic party machines. His discoveries, particularly about why free citizens don’t vote, were published, heralded, widely read... and quickly forgotten.

After Gosnell, the science of political movement proceeded only by fits and starts. Despite its name, “Political Science” has largely been more a branch of philosophy than an actual science. Isolated discoveries during the middle of the Twentieth Century made for momentary leaps forward, and elections became a somewhat more refined enterprise. But politics remained the domain of professional chin-pullers who largely only talked to one another.

This in part stemmed from the risks inherent in serious testing. For a long time, the only way to see whether a particular message worked, was to set up a control group of voters who would not receive key messages. No candidate, obviously, wanted to give up key votes, particularly in closely contested elections, which were the ones that would yield the most meaningful results. So political science inched forward, relying on untestable beliefs.

Throughout the Twentieth Century, we could rely on certain constants: Democrats had better luck mustering volunteers to get out the vote. Republicans could curry more and bigger monetary donations to pay for media blitzes. To use the military metaphors beloved of campaign professionals, the Repubs had better air cover, while Dems did better at close quarter combat. But after the 2000 elections, everything began to change.

Real advances in understanding voting and campaigning came, not from within the political science fortress, but in economics. The rise of behavioral economics allowed a field previously famous for starched shirts and inscrutability to study why ordinary people do ordinary things. They discovered, for instance, that voters do not vote because we think we can swing the election; we vote because of social implications. We vote when others expect us to vote.

You remember what happened in 2000, right? You remember the Presidential election decided not by voters, but by a quirk of the court system. Republicans wanted to ensure their win wasn’t seen as a mere quasi-legal fluke. Democrats wanted to restore what they perceived as diminished legitimacy to the electoral system. And behavioral economists were perfectly positioned to fill the need coming from both sides.

It would be easy for Issenberg to make this book about only one party. Dubya’s ability to do the impossible and solidify his slippery grip in 2002 would have made an exciting story in its own right. So would Barack Obama’s unprecedented ability to drum up small donors and sweep the election in 2008. But neither of these would have told the whole scope of the story, which Issenberg admits is far from done. New discoveries come out every day.

I feel a bit disappointed by Issenberg’s approach. He promises “the secret science of winning campaigns,” but focuses more on personalities than processes. Knowing who made important discoveries matters, and the range of personalities creates a narrative flow that binds the book together. But apart from a few discoveries (bullying, sadly works; front door visits from volunteers turn out more voters), he doesn’t give us very many working points.

Still, Issenberg does give a good overview of recent developments, and his thorough source notes suggest further reading. He also reveals important avenues of investigation still open for boots-on-the-ground research. For anyone interested in politics, either as a voter or an activist, Issenberg shares ongoing insights and important open questions.

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