Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Book Review: The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg

Following Barack Obama’s surprising victory in the Iowa Caucuses in 2008 a great deal has been made about how exactly the Obama team managed to pull it off. The campaign’s impressive work in the 2008 and 2012 presidential election has solidified this opinion that they have managed to do something special and win over voters. Issenberg in his book The Victory Lab gives us a tiny peak into how.

This is the premise that I do not doubt attracts a majority of the readers of The Victory Lab to the text. It has been frequently called “The Moneyball for politics”, but I do not think that that is a fair comparison. The Victory Lab is basically a history of American research and practice of electoral politics. It begins modestly with the story of the first quantitative research on elections, and how to improve voter turnout. From the early twentieth century to the present day Issenberg explains how changes in technology, media and developments in the marketing/public opinion industry have reshaped American (and Canadian) politics.

What The Victory Lab demonstrates is that commercial interests now have a tremendous amount of information about us and political parties and candidates are now learning how to use that information to press our buttons. On one hand it is a staggeringly cynical way to look at politics. It is not particularly new; allow me to provide an example. It is not unusual in the 20th century for a pro-gun candidate to contact the list of subscribers to a hunting magazine to trawl for potential voters. That’s a pretty obvious correlation. However, the vast database of individual consumer purchases, when aligned with similar people and their voting patterns, means that campaigns can very specifically target individuals. The way Americans preserve voter information makes this far more feasible than for their Canadian counterparts.

If you give the right data to a modern campaign operative she/he can identify the type of party/candidate/message will best appeal to you. It’s important to remember that this is not a one-to-one analysis. Buying Pepsi does not make you a Democrat, but a person who lives in your style of neighbourhood, with a luxury smartphone plan and premium cable tends to vote for candidates X, and prefers lower taxes, and worries about public safety issues. So instead of getting the mail item about the environment you get the one about policing. It’s clever, and vaguely terrifying.

The tragic part about The Victory Lab is the specifics of how this all works is left vague and unclear. Issenberg lays out the history and how American politics has reached this point. The ubiquity of consumer data and the constant expansion of voter database information means that things are bound to change. Issenberg alludes to the fact that personal politics has eclipsed the mass politics, in a way reverting to democratic origins of the early republic and the 19th century.

The observations and some of the anecdotes are fascinating. The academics in the book are always looking at ways to squeeze out more turnout and figure out objectively what works best to bring people to the polls. However, the methods being employed now undermine consistency in politics. A campaign can freely speak out of both sides of its mouth. However, the strategy is for a more positive end for now, driving up turnout. One of the interesting things about the 2012 election is that the Obama campaign was able to turnout its supporters so effectively it distorted the composition of the certain states. Like old 19th century elections, it’s a numbers game again, so line up the men and make ‘em vote. Vote early, and vote often.

Ultimately though, the story Issenberg presents is merely a history and how campaigns have changed and how traditional thinking and posturing by pundits and “strategists” is terribly outdated. He makes a compelling case, but case studies are not fleshed out enough to connect it. This is a narrative, not a how-to. Issenberg points frequently to Donald Green and Alan Gerber and their book Get Out the Vote as more of a manual. Issenberg provides a fascinating overview of how American campaigns have changed, and how they will likely continue to evolve, but the relatively dry subject matter is really only for the most dedicated of reader on this topic.

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