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Book review: ‘The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns’ by Sasha Issenberg

By Jeff Greenfield,

Davy Crockett knew how to get out the vote. When the famed frontiersman ran for Congress, he invited the menfolk to a tavern and stood them to drinks, which he paid for with a coonskin.

You can still find that kind of approach to voter turnout; there’s free food, drinks and admission if you’re willing to cast a vote in the utterly meaningless Iowa GOP straw poll. For most campaigns today, however, getting out the vote — and finding people who will vote for your candidate — increasingly rely on a blend of computer technology and behavioral psychology that has revolutionized the political universe. That is the central argument of Sasha Issenberg’s “The Victory Lab,” and at the risk of serving up over-caffeinated hype, it really is an indispensable guide for understanding what has changed, how and why.

Issenberg is one of the cadre of younger political writers, like the New York Times’ Nate Silver and The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, who have come of age with a solid understanding of statistics and algorithms (which, for some of us on the other side of the generational fault, sound like a dance tempo). Issenberg also has a firm grounding in the political universe.

This combination enables him to chart a virtual century’s worth of efforts by political scientists and campaign pros to find out what motivates people to go to the polls, what makes them more likely to choose one candidate over another and what kind of messages work best. By the end, you will understand exactly why you may be receiving a plain, unadorned letter or a phone call congratulating you on your voting record, or asking you when you plan to vote and how you plan to get to the polls. (Spoiler alert: Research shows that voters reject slick, four-color mailings as manipulative, and behavioral studies find that when people are prodded to plan an activity precisely, they are more likely to follow through.)

Issenberg’s account begins in the 1920s, at the University of Chicago, when a political scientist named Harold Gosnell sent out postcards with different appeals to vote and measured the effectiveness of each. Decades passed before other academics embraced that approach. But when they did, the combination of the insights of behavioral psychologists such asAmos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman and the huge data-crunching capacity of computers revealed that almost every assumption about the behavior of voters was fatally flawed.

The academics found that voting is part of a social process,which is why voters respond to praise for past votes. In fact, studies show, they are far more likely to cast a ballot when threatened with pubic exposure for not voting, but no campaign would dare send such a message — at least, not openly.

And the computers’ ability to massage mountains of data yielded a new method of locating supporters: “micro-targeting,” which may have given George W. Bush’s reelection campaign its margin of victory in 2004.

To simplify (or oversimplify), the campaign examined the traits of known Bush voters — what they bought, what they read, if and where and how they worshipped — and then looked for voters with similar traits. In so doing, they were able to locate Bush voters in strongly Democratic neighborhoods and turn them out on Election Day. Some accounts vastly oversimplified this as identifying Republicans as drinkers of Coors beer and bourbon, while recognizing that Democrats prefer cognac and brandy.

Four years later, Barack Obama’s team used its mountain of information to structure virtually its entire campaign. In Iowa, it swelled the rolls of caucus-goers by finding 17-year-olds who would turn 18 by November; in the fall, it knew its targets so well that it could divine on what bus routes in which cities to place ads.

Some methods involve the rediscovery of old truths: Spontaneous conversation works better on phone banks than scripted patter from paid professionals; neighbors who know where you shop and where you go to school are more persuasive than outsiders. Other methods demonstrate just how remarkable the trove of new, accessible information can be in guiding a campaign. For instance, when Obama’s advisers learned that swing-voter households containing teenagers were more likely to support him, the campaign “schemed to buy space within video games. Soon the early vote number appeared as advertising in hockey and NASCAR video games.”

Issenberg paints his insurgents in heroic terms, putting the spotlight on campaign warriors few of us have ever heard of, challenging the untested certainties of very well-known, very well-paid pollsters, consultants and media stars. It is clear that he holds heavyweights such as Mark Penn and Bob Shrum in minimal regard for offering cookie-cutter campaign advice devoid of real knowledge about what moves voters.

And his admiration for the “guerillas” who challenge the old non-wisdom is nonpartisan. GOP consultant Dave Carney insisted on testing direct-mail approaches and firing the purveyors who did not deliver. Hal Malchow, the heroic center of the book, is a passionate liberal who drove his colleagues crazy by demanding randomized experiments to see what actually worked.

Unlike with other books about the effort to understand and persuade ordinary folks — Vance Packard’s “The Hidden Persuaders,” for example — Issenberg’s stance is celebratory: “The revolutionaries,” he says, “are taking a politics distended by television’s long reach and restoring it to a human scale — even delivering, at times, a perfectly disarming touch of intimacy. . . . Campaigns have started treating voters like people again.”

Here a bit of dissent may be in order. It is true that these new techniques have enabled campaigns to understand in detail the values, preferences, concerns and motivations of individuals. But if, as Issenberg says, this means that a campaign can deliver very different messages to different voters — here the environmentalist, there the job creator, here the antiabortion champion, there the woman’s champion — its techniques begin to look a lot less like communication and a lot more like manipulation. One virtue of old-fashioned broadcast TV messages was that everyone heard them; running as a civil rights stalwart in the North and a states’ rights voice in the South was no longer possible.

That cautionary note in no way weakens Issenberg’s 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 is a Yahoo News columnist and host of PBS’s “Need to Know.” His new e-book, “43* — When Gore Beat Bush,” is available at Byliner.com.

THE VICTORY LAB The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns By Sasha Issenberg Crown. 357 pp. $26

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