2012 Election Season in the Era of Political Moneyball

Sasha Issenberg’s new book discusses political strategies and how television matters less than ever in this fall’s campaign.

By: John Wilwol

Issenberg’s previous book traced the rise of sushi. Photograph of Issenberg by David Fields.

Slate columnist and Monocle Washington correspondent Sasha Issenberg’s new book, The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, reveals why the $6-billion-per-year campaign industry has moved away from the notion that big things, such as TV ads, are what make or break candidates and has embraced a kind of statistics-driven small-ball—or, as one strategist puts it, “Moneyball for progressive politics.” In Issenberg’s new campaign world, eggheads push mountains of data through complex algorithms to unleash highly effective microtargeting campaigns that measure, predict, and influence voter behavior. We’ve used a few of The Victory Lab’s findings to put together some dos and don’ts for your team.

Don’t waste time or money appealing to voters on your side. Issenberg tells us that in 2000 the Republican National Committee informed state party officials it would no longer support targeting methods that focused on stronghold precincts. Instead, they should focus on families who might not even be regular voters but whom their algorithms described as “ripe targets for Bush.” As one official put it, “We’re not going after the fifty-year-old man who’s voted in every primary and caucus in the last twenty years.”

Do consider (gently) threatening voters to increase turnout. In the 2006 Michigan general primary, a few voters received a letter with a chart. The letter said, “The chart shows the names of some of your neighbors, showing which have voted in the past. After the August 8 election, we intend to mail an updated chart. You and your neighbors will all know who voted and who did not.” The letter increased turnout at a rate roughly three times that of any other piece of mail ever tested.

Don’t waste time or money telling voters what they already know. One strategist quoted in The Victory Lab describes his frustration at the lack of meaningful information that conventional polls gather. While they’re good at describing what matters most to people, the polls are bad at describing what might change voters’ minds. Learning that someone cares about the environment, for example, and then sending that person material describing how Al Gore favors green initiatives is a waste of time. “Unless their head’s under a rock,” the strategist says, “they know Al Gore is against global warming.”

Do get your voters to plan their Election Day routine. You’ve got to make sure those on your side actually get off the couch and place their vote. One way to do that, Issenberg says, is by taking advantage of the “plan-making effect,” which demonstrates that “people are more likely to perform an action if they have already visualized themselves doing it.” A simple phone call asking, “What time will you vote Tuesday?” might be enough to do the trick.

This article appears in the September 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.