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.