The must-read political book of the week is not Bob Woodward’s

By on September 10, 2012

The must-read political book of the week is not Bob Woodward’s much-discussed “The Price of Politics,” but rather it is Sasha Issenberg’s “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns,” which is already being billed as the ‘Moneyball of politics.’

Examining the analytical revolution driving the Obama campaign, which is invisible to the press, Issenberg inspects the sophisticated data operations being run by modern campaigns:

Over the last decade, almost entirely out of view, campaigns have modernized their techniques in such a way that nearly every member of the political press now lacks the specialized expertise to interpret what’s going on. Campaign professionals have developed a new conceptual framework for understanding what moves votes. It’s as if restaurant critics remained oblivious to a generation’s worth of new chefs’ tools and techniques and persisted in describing every dish that came out of the kitchen as either “grilled” or “broiled.”

Walter Russell Mead brandishes Issenberg’s book against the mainstream media:

What this means from the standpoint of readers is fascinating: we are spending hours and hours following the most exhaustively reported phenomenon in modern life, but we aren’t being told what is really going on. Not because incredibly sharp editors and reporters are scurrying like crazy to conceal the truth from the public, but because the mediocre bureaucrats who staff established news organizations aren’t smart enough to understand what is actually taking place. The legacy media is too stupid and too lazy to understand the event on which it expends more resources than any other — and as long as enough eyeballs are attracted by the show, it doesn’t really care.

Here is an excerpt from Issenberg’s book via Mike Allen’s Politico Playbook:

“After the algorithms worked through the new round of weekly IDs [polling-style calls to identify voters' preferences], they would drop a new set of support and turnout scores on every voter’s record in the … [database], each of them represented as a percentage probability. … [Microtargeting consultant Ken] Strasma was able to see which voters were moving between candidates. Eventually they had a large enough sample of those who changed from McCain to Obama, and vice versa, that the campaign was able to create a model of these voters they called ‘shifters.’ It allowed the campaign to refine its category of ‘undecided,’ a catch-all description that long frustrated political scientists and psychologists because it was applied equally to voters who hadn’t made up their minds, weren’t paying attention, were trying to weigh competing values, or were simply unwilling to share with a stranger … Someone who was undecided in June was probably a very different type of voter than one who was undecided in October.

“Using algorithms to find other undecided voters who looked like shifters (and determine which direction they were likely to go) would help the Obama campaign know which ones were worth targeting, and when to do so. By the time of the Republican convention in early September, the Obama campaign was placing well over 100,000 paid ID calls a week nationwide, with all the data feeding into Strasma’s computers. When McCain picked Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, Obama’s strategists were befuddled: they thought the Republican had been gaining traction by highlighting Obama’s thin résumé, and now seemed to be sacrificing that argument by putting forward their own neophyte.

“But one week after the Republican convention , Strasma saw the first sign that McCain’s move might be paying off when the first round of post-Palin IDs came back from phone banks. People were identifying themselves as pro-McCain at a higher rate their scores suggested they should have been. Strasma bore down into the numbers, and saw the phenomenon particularly strong among women. Campaign strategists worried that McCain and Palin, running as ‘two mavericks,’ may have been proving themselves successful at seizing Obama’s themes of change and reform. When the next round of IDs came in, two weeks after the Palin’s nomination, the IDs told a different story. The models had begun to integrate the increased levels of support for McCain’s ticket, but now the IDs were heading in the other direction, underperforming the scores, especially among Republican women. …

“The disconnect … suggested that Palin’s selection had offered little more than a temporary bump, as opposed to the permanent boost that McCain’s advisers had anticipated. ‘She ended up being a sugar high for them,’ says [Obama direct-mail tactician Pete] Giangreco … That eventually became conventional wisdom, … but Strasma saw it well ahead of the curve … ‘You would see things faster than the polling would come back,’ says [Obama new-media field director Judith] Freeman. Eventually the campaign was able to develop a modeling score for the action of shifting, predicting not only what views a voter had but individual susceptibility to changing them at a given point … Strasma believed that this predictive modeling gave Obama’s staff the tools of the fortune-teller. ‘We determined that, down the line, they were going to break for us … We knew who these people were going to vote for before they decided.’”

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