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Both major political parties are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to influence the opinions of a tiny sliver of the electorate, using attack ads, stump speeches and surrogates to reach undecided voters. But both parties are also engaged in a secretive, data-driven competition to identify and motivate their core supporters for Election Day, drawing inspiration from prescription drug trials and behavioral science experiments. We talk with author Sasha Issenberg about the secret science of winning campaigns.
- Sasha Issenberg Columnist, Slate; Author, "The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns" (Crown)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Pity the TV viewer in the Washington media market. With six weeks before election day, Republicans and Democrats are blanketing the airways with attack ads and quasi testimonials interrupting the football games and evening news for millions of viewers in the hopes of swaying a couple thousand Virginia voters who haven't made up their minds yet.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut for all the attention and treasure being lavished on undecided voters and independents, victory in swing states like Virginia will almost certainly come down to which party can turn out its supporters. So both campaigns are waging a high-tech, data-driven battle to identify their supporters and craft messages that rally, cajole and sometimes guilt-trip their supporters into showing up at the polls.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAuthor Sasha Issenberg says there's a secret science behind today's winning campaigns at the cutting edge of data crunching and behavioral sciences. Sasha Issenberg is a columnist with Slate and the author of "The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns." Sasha Issenberg, thank you for joining us.
MR. SASHA ISSENBERGThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIIf you, too, would like to join the conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Are you one of those highly coveted, independent or undecided voters? What kinds of messages would convince you to vote for one candidate or another? 800-433-8850.
NNAMDISasha, politicians and their campaigns love simple explanations. They'll tell us elections come down to ideas, to simple choices between going forwards or going backwards or choice between a plan to create jobs in the free market or stifle them with government. But campaign strategists have always known that thousands, even millions of variables, can influence whether candidate X ends up with more votes than candidate Y.
NNAMDISome of them are intangible, like momentum. Some of them once seemed intangible. But now campaigns think they can quantify them like, what kind of language gets people to get off their couch, get to the polling station? You call this a secret science. What do you mean by that?
ISSENBERGWell, you're right. The stories that we tell about campaigns tend to be these big narratives. But we're starting to be able to measure a lot of little things that go into a campaign. It's just in the last decade or so, two big innovations have sort of migrated into the world of politics.
ISSENBERGThe first is the use of field experiments, which in the late '90s, two political scientists at Yale decided that they were tired of just looking at survey data and running regression analysis and they were actually going to go out on the streets and see what made people vote.
ISSENBERGAnd so they did this experiment in New Haven in the fall of 1998 where they randomly assigned voters into different groups and sent them get out the vote messages, some by mail, some by phone, some by a visit from a canvasser knocking on their door and then there was a control group. And this is the same way that people run pharmaceutical trials.
ISSENBERGAnd instead of giving them drugs and placebos, you're giving them reminders to vote and they found in that experiment that the phone calls did nothing getting people to vote. The mail had a small but appreciable effect in motivating them and having someone knock on your door and remind you of the election was massive.
ISSENBERGAnd what that did was not only tell people that maybe we're wasting a lot of money on phone calls, but all of a sudden, it showed the political world there's a certain empirical way to measure these things that we're now spending billions of dollars on in total and start to measure in small ways what actually moves a voter.
ISSENBERGAnd at the same time, there's been all this data that's moved into politics from the commercial world, from consumer databases that's giving campaigns a lot more information about who you individually are. And those two innovations have sort of worked together to totally change the way that campaigns think about individual voters, the way they think about interacting with you and how they think generally about what is actually moving people to vote or change their minds.
NNAMDIAnd the political scientists you're talking about, I presume, are Alan Gerber and Donald Green?
ISSENBERGThat's right. They had sort of been drawn into this because of a whole bunch of sort of theoretical disputes in their field and they ended up running this first experiment sort of to prove that maybe the traditional idea that voters were perfectly rational was silly in part because when you start to think of it, there's nothing rational about voting.
ISSENBERGThe costs to a voter are incredible. You have to go to a lot of trouble to research the candidates, make a decision. You take time out of your day. You wait in line and then the benefits are really small, this tiny chance that your vote will make the difference.
ISSENBERGAnd they went out and said, let's see if we can actually change the calculus and it turned out that they might not have made a huge contribution to that debate at first, but they ended up finding all this really practical information that's totally changed the way that campaign strategists and tacticians make decisions about resources inside campaigns.
NNAMDIWell, one of the first operatives to sense that you could use behavioral techniques to get out the vote was a guy named Mark Grebner. What did Grebner do?
ISSENBERGYeah, he's just a direct mail consultant in Michigan who has been involved in campaigns since the 1970s. And at some point, he became aware that voters didn't know or didn't fully appreciate the extent to which information about their participation was public.
ISSENBERGObviously, we have a secret ballot. Nobody knows who you vote for. But whether or not you vote in every election is a matter of public record and you can go down to the Board of Elections anywhere and you can see whether somebody showed up to vote in the presidential election or the school board, whatever.
ISSENBERGAnd he thought voters didn't fully appreciate this and thought that there's an opportunity to shame them or at least threaten to shame them.
NNAMDIAnd this in the governor's race in, what, 2005?
ISSENBERGYeah, it started in 2005 and he ran a series of experiments with a big one in 2006. He randomly assigned voters to get different types of letters. And one of them said something like, dear Kojo, your history as a voter is a publically-available document, accessible to County Board of Elections. Here's your history and it said, you know, you voted in the 2006 Senate primary. You didn't vote in the 2005 school board election. You did vote in the 2004 presidential election, like for the last six elections, it said.
ISSENBERGAnd here are your neighbors' vote histories. And it picked out people from your block and whether they had gone to the polls. And then it said, as you may know, there's another election coming up. Afterwards, we'll send everybody an updated set.
ISSENBERGAnd this was sort of incredible by the standards of measuring turnout. It increased turnout by 20 percent among the people in the group who got it. It got Grebner death threats, which was only a reminder of the sort of potency of this idea that behavioral psychologists call social pressure. And it is something that had been sort of demonstrated in other areas.
ISSENBERGIt had been used to, you know, proven in lab experiments and people had gotten increases in, like, recycling rates by trying to show. People want to live up to the expectations that they set for good citizenship. They want to live up to the standards that they see that their neighbors may have set for them.
ISSENBERGAnd he sort of used this threat of outing people for not having voted to sort of change their political behavior.
NNAMDIOur guest is Sasha Issenberg. He's a columnist with Slate and author of the book "The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns." Our conversation is about how data is being increasingly used in campaigns and how it is being used in this presidential race.
NNAMDIWe're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com or you can also send us a tweet @kojoshow or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. By almost all measures, 2010 was a bad election year for Democrats.
NNAMDIBut the party managed to survive the Republican wave in a few key Senate races. One bright spot for Democrats was in Colorado where Michael Bennet, an appointed moderate Democratic senator, beat back a conservative Tea Party candidate name Ken Buck. Bennet consistently ran behind in the polling, but he managed to win by almost 30,000 votes.
NNAMDIYou begin this book by talking about that race and a mysterious letter that some voters received in the mail in the weeks before Election Day. Please explain.
ISSENBERGThere were a million of these letters that went out as a simple white paper folded in an envelope and it said something like -- and it went to people who had voted in the 2008 elections, but hadn't voted since and weren't regular voters.
ISSENBERGAnd it said something like, dear Kojo, I can see that you voted in the 2008 elections and I want to thank you for being a voter. There is another election coming up in November and I'm hoping that afterwards I can thank you once again for being a good citizen. And it came from an organization nobody had heard of.
ISSENBERGIt didn't mention either of the candidates. It didn't mention Barack Obama. It didn't mention the Tea Party. It didn't mention any issues. It didn't talk at all about the stakes of the election. It was this very simple note. And that letter represented a sort of the end of a five-year research arc that started with Mark Grebner's threatening to out people.
ISSENBERGHe got the death threats, but it demonstrated that there was immense potency to this idea of letting people know that whether or not they vote is public and that there can be a sort of element of surveillance and judging. And over those years, people in politics and people in academia worked on a series of experiments to try to figure out how to channel that psychological power into something that campaigns and candidates and parties were willing to put their names behind.
ISSENBERGAnd they sort of turned it on its head where instead of what seems like the cynical negative I'm going to shame you message, you turn into an affirmative, I want to thank you for being a voter. But there's still the underlying promise is the same, which is somebody is going to know whether or not you did this and you'll be judged.
ISSENBERGAnd that's now a rather widespread practice that people in both parties are using as a way of encouraging turnout among their supporters.
NNAMDIHave you been contacted by any campaigns directly or indirectly? What kind of information did they know about you or what kind of information did they seem to want from you? 800-433-8850, on to the telephones. Here is Benjamin in Bethesda, Md. Benjamin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BENJAMINHi Kojo, I just wanted to say two things. One is that I've been incredibly frustrated by the lack of specificity from both campaigns when it comes to this fiscal cliff, entitlement reform, tax reform. Obama is happy to say what taxes he'll raise, but he won't talk about what cuts he'll make to entitlements.
BENJAMINRomney's just the opposite. He's happy to talk about tax cuts, but not about -- or rather he's happy to about entitlement cuts, but not tax increases so it just seems so irresponsible for Americans to be voting on who they're going to elect without hearing what these politicians want. And I'm afraid that that's becoming a precedent in political wisdom, not to talk about what your actual positions are and to discuss this as little as possible.
BENJAMINThe other thing I wanted to say is my pet issue being drug policy. If either one of these candidates would talk about drug policy and drug reform and criminal justice reform, that could certainly tilt my vote, but I don't know which way I'm leaning just yet.
NNAMDISasha Issenberg, when we're talking about the data-driven campaigns, they seem to be less focused on the specifics of policy issues that our caller would like addressed than how they are more likely to influence that caller on the basis of data indicating what that caller's other inclinations might be.
ISSENBERGRight. I mean, almost all the innovations I talk about in politics have happened after 2000, both this experimental stuff migrating into politics and then all this new data coming online and people figuring out how to use it in sophisticated ways. And I don't think that's a coincidence.
ISSENBERGI think the 2000 election was incredibly influential in the culture of campaigns in two ways. One, we learned how polarized the country was on partisan grounds, how few voters actually were susceptible to moving between both parties.
ISSENBERGThere is -- I can tell a story about Matthew Dowd who was Bush's chief polling advisor in 2000 started writing a memo even before the Supreme Court had decided in December of 2000, looking ahead to what Bush's re-election would be like. And he picked out one statistic which was that in 1984, I think it was 25 or 26 percent of voters, somewhere on their ballot voted for a Democrat and a Republican and by 2000, I think it was 7 percent.
ISSENBERGAnd he basically said, you know, this whole idea of going after swing voters in the middle, which was the sort of, you know, the governing dynamic of presidential campaigns even through 1996, was no longer a reasonable way of approaching a presidential campaign and that the Bush re-election had to mobilize its base.
ISSENBERGAs a sort of primary concern, it had to focus on persuading what was a very small sliver of people in the middle that the balance needed to shift. And then the other thing that happened in that campaign was after Florida, we started looking at politics in very small margins and so innovations that might make a campaign 1 percent or 2 percent better looked like they were worth investing lots of money in to sort of unlock.
ISSENBERGAnd so I think we're in an era now where a lot of the -- we have much better science and research about how to mobilize, how to register voters and how to mobilize voters than we do about how to change their minds. And it's matched a period where campaigns see far more strategic value in identifying people who are attached to their party or like their candidate in mobilizing them than they are about just identifying a sliver of people who could go either way.
ISSENBERGAnd so what I think it sort of adds up to is that campaigns are far less focused on changing people's opinions than they are on sort of changing their behaviors. And that's one reason why especially on sort of murky issues like, you know, long term fiscal conditions or criminal justice policy that campaigns...
NNAMDINobody's in a hurry to give specifics.
ISSENBERGNobody's in a hurry to give specifics and they're far less interested in finding issues that will crosscut traditional coalitions than they were about figuring out how to identify those coalitions and mobilize them.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have already called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. The number's 800-433-8850. Our guest is Sasha Issenberg. He is a columnist with Slate and author of the book "The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns." Are you one of those independent or undecided voters? What kind of messages would convince you to vote for one candidate over another? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about data-driven campaigns with Sasha Issenberg who is a columnist with Slate and author of the book "The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns." Taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Before I go to the phones, Sasha, walk me through this. What data about me already exists and how do the campaigns build on that? If I live in Northern Virginia and somebody knocks on my door for either Romney or Obama they may give me some literature, they may ask me how I'm leaning, whether I would talk to a neighbor.
NNAMDIFrom my perspective, it probably isn't all that different from two or four years ago, but the actual canvases are using that information in a different way, right? What are they doing with the little insights and intelligence to get going door to door?
ISSENBERGSure. Let's start at the beginning. So you register to vote and they have your name, they have your address, they have your age from your date of birth, you gender, in some states your face or ethnicity. And then they have your -- some information about your voting habits. Virginia does not have party ID, but if you vote in primaries, it gives them an indication which part you identify with.
ISSENBERGCampaigns in the '90s began to overlay basic census data so now I have information about your block or your neighborhood. And I can start to extrapolate about your socioeconomic status, your education level, your family type, the density of the neighborhood you live in, better prediction of race or ethnicity.
ISSENBERGThen the big breakthrough was after 2000, people in politics realized that they could take the databases that they had created with this political precinct census information with all the information that had been collected in commercial databases that have been initially established to develop your credit rating score and that have been used by direct mail markers who decide if they want to send you a catalog, and by charities who decide if they should prospect you for a donation.
ISSENBERGAnd those people have hundreds of variables on you. And that could be whether or not you applied for a permit to build a pool in your backyard or whether you had filled out a warranty for a TV that your household income is between 50 and $75,000 or whether you had a gun license or any number of things. Some about your buying habits, your lifestyle patterns, about demographics, much of it that you would had self reported at some point rather innocuously when you fill out a customer service questionnaire and you gave away some information that talked about how often you go on vacation or something.
ISSENBERGAll that information was in a database and so they were able to merge those. And that's the sort of the base of political information. Then campaigns go out in the field to add a level of human intelligence. And so when they knock on your door or call you during dinner and say, hey I just have a few questions for -- I'm calling for the Obama campaign, I just have a few questions for you. Do you plan to vote in November? Who do you plan to vote for? What issues do you care about? That information's being taken down.
ISSENBERGIn the old days, by which I mean like a decade ago, it might go on a clipboard and get thrown in a file cabinet and after -- and go into a dumpster the day after the election. Now it's pretty certain to live on forever. And so campaigns now have access to thousands of variables, which can be everything from whether you voted in the 2005 gubernatorial election to whether you told a canvasser from the League of Conservation Voters that you care about global warming to did you take a cruise in the last six months? And...
NNAMDISo they have a profile of you, Sasha Issenberg.
ISSENBERGThey have a profile and what they do is they're running these statistical models. They run an algorithm through all that data that matches it up against polling information. And so they're out polling thousands of people and now they come up with a prediction, which is how likely are you to vote for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney? How likely are you to turn out and cast a ballot for anybody? How likely are you to be prochoice or care about a certain issue?
ISSENBERGAnd they use those -- they're scores basically and it's a prediction and it's the political world's version of a credit score. And so instead of -- the same way that a financial loan officer will want to know your scores before he gives you a line of credit 'cause he'll want to know a prediction about how likely you are to default or pay off your bill on time or run up more than $2,000 in charges in a given month.
ISSENBERGBefore a field organizer at a local campaign office sends somebody to knock on your door, they want to know the likelihood that you're going to vote, the likelihood that you're going to vote for their candidate, the likelihood that you're going to care about those issues. And then they're going out to actually have a meaningful interaction with you.
NNAMDIYour profile has already been compiled. Let's go now to John in Bowie, Md. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNThank you, Kojo, and your staff and NPR for continuing to be there. Sasha, and I apologize, I've forgotten your last name...
JOHN…while I'm not too far afield, the power of the information that you are so very, very, very clearly defining here, still with words like variables and such and sundry, that are the terms of statistics, I think there's a very strong lag of decades going from Jonathan Robinson (unintelligible) corporation back in the '60s and statistical analysis and what it can do. And the old, old back to the '40s view of privacy, which we didn't realize was not so much that public information was there in the public, it was hard to physically get at.
JOHNAnd now it is exactly the opposite and all of these things are being compiled. And if we don't have any particular -- and I get into what sounds like, I suppose, a activist mode -- and I don't feel that way really, but it's a concern of immense proportions of when does privacy get back to being privacy. While everybody else at corporate is taking all this information and using it for us and has pictures of us that we don't even have?
ISSENBERGYeah, I mean, this is a place where I've done some reporting in other countries about campaigns. I was in Mexico and France for their elections this year and there's a -- the U.S. and Canada are really different about the amount of information that companies can collect about you and the ability of political entities to create these databases. And there's -- one of the things I found just in reporting on this and talking to people is how amazingly low our expectation of privacy is as Americans, when it comes to politics at least.
ISSENBERGIt's (word?) with the consumer world too, but we're used to being called at home or have some -- a stranger knock on your door and ask you what are ultimately fairly intimate questions about what we're told is a private activity.
NNAMDIWe even have -- some of us even have prepared responses for them.
ISSENBERGYes. And, you know, what's interesting if you look at the history is that this is -- that there was a big shift in the late 19th century. We used to vote in public. You know, up until the 1880s Americans would gather on the steps of the courthouse or the town hall or in a tavern and people would vote in public by raising their hands or taking a voice vote. And the secret ballot is a relatively modern introduction in the 1880s and 1890s
ISSENBERGAnd it's bizarrely changed -- I think the caller's getting it -- there's this weird disjunction between what we know and expect to be private in voting, which is how you vote and all the other information that I think people tend to be unaware exists or now has been collected and is being used by campaigns to make incredibly refined predictions about what you will do.
ISSENBERGI have a quote in there from Ken Strasma who is Obama's top micro-targeting consultant in 2008, the guy who sort of processed all these data and came up with these predictions for Obama. And he said they created a statistical model for what they called shifting, which was the action of changing your mind about candidates moving from one to the other. They were most interested in people who were moving from McCain to Obama in the fall of 2008 and they created this shifter model. It was a prediction that you would change your mind. And I quote him saying, at some point we knew who people would vote for before they did.
ISSENBERGAnd so it's not just that there's all this data that's been available and compiled, but campaigns are drawing sort of amazing conclusions from it that are forward looking.
NNAMDIWhich brings me back to John's question, which as I recall it is when do we get back to the notions of privacy that prevailed in the 1940s?
ISSENBERGI don't -- you know, I don't cover the legislative regulatory side of this but I see no -- I think that there's a lot of interest right now about online information. And commercial marketers, web hosts are very conscious of the idea that they could have to fight off a sort of consumer insurrection. And they've conceded a lot of -- they've taken sort of self regulatory measures to limit the amount of information they have about where you go on the internet and how that information's collected.
ISSENBERGAlmost all of the data I'm talking about on this book is used for politics as offline data. It was collected before the internet. It has nothing to do with who you are online. It has a lot to do with your name tethered to your home address based on who you are in the real world. And so I think that there's a huge disconnect and I don't see any serious effort afoot to deal with privacy concerns on that level. And my guess is that the cat is so far out of the bag that these variables, data points, whatever the technical term I use have been sold and resold so many times that I don't know where you would start to sort of take them out of the public domain.
NNAMDIJohn, thank you very much for your call. We go to Jolene in Cheverly ,Md. Hi, Jolene. You're on the air. Go ahead, please. Is this Jolene Ivy?
JOLENEThis is Jolene Ivy and I'm so glad you're having this discussion today. It made me think about my first election in 2006.
NNAMDIAnd Jolene Ivy sits in the House of Delegates in the General Assembly in Maryland. So we're talking to someone who has practical experience with this. Jolene, go ahead, please.
ISSENBERGWhat year was your first election?
JOLENEIt was in 2006 with the election I took office in January of 2007. And the night before the primary, I had my phone bank volunteers. They called people who always voted in the general elections, but never voted in the primaries. Now being Prince George's County, the primary is the election.
NNAMDIYep, like in the District.
JOLENEThat's really it, but these people thought they really had a good voting record because they always voted, but only in the general. So my volunteers called them up and said, hello, Ms. Smith. You're a wonderful voter. I can see that it's very important to you because you always vote. And when you go vote tomorrow, make sure you vote for Jolene Ivy for Delegate. And the next day one of the -- the poll I was working, people came up to me all day and said, oh, you called me last night.
JOLENEAnd so I figured that I got a few extra votes out of that. It seemed to work, but, you know, people want to feel like they're good voters. And I thought that it worked well to give them positive reinforcement instead of calling them and saying, you know the real election is tomorrow. It's not really the general. We don't have a Republican in the race. They didn't want to hear that. They wanted to hear that they were good voters, so that's what we told them.
NNAMDIYou made an excellent point because one of the points that's being made in the book "The Victory Lab" is this kind of appeal to civic responsibility. It doesn't even have to be partisan, does it?
ISSENBERGNo, and I don't know whether Jolene's phone bank captains were reading the psychology journals before they came up with that script but, you know, another one of the sort of things that has migrated from behavioral science as a campaign practice is this idea you have to collect identity salience or something. But it is the idea you emphasize an aspect of someone's identity in talking to them that you want to sort of predominate in their behavior.
ISSENBERGThere's a legendary psychology experiment where Asian American female students were randomly assigned and it's two groups before they were taking a test. And half of them were basically told things to remind them that they were women and half of them were told things that remind them that they were Asian American, with the idea that there're stereotypes about women being bad at math. And there're stereotypes about Asian Americans being good at math.
ISSENBERGAnd actually the ones who were sort of reminded of the Asian American part of their identity taking salience over performed on the test compared to when their gender was emphasized. And there are experiments that have been run where just referring to somebody as a voter saying dear voter or as a type of person who votes is enough to increase their likelihood of actually turning out to cast their ballot 'cause they want to live up to that expectation.
NNAMDIJolene Ivy, thank you very much for your call.
NNAMDIYou too can call us at 800-433-8850. Have you been contacted by any campaign directly or indirectly? What kind of information did they know about you or what kind of information did they seem to want from you? 800-433-8850. Barack Obama's 2008 campaign operation was widely seen as a pioneer in this kind of sophisticated data-driven campaigning. The campaign has been very tight-lipped about its operation this time around. What do we know about how they're trying to approach photo data?
ISSENBERGWell, one of the big -- you know, there's a sort of smiley happy surface to the Obama tech operation in 2008. And under the surface there were some tensions throughout the year that -- and one of the big ones was that they were sort of collecting all this information through a lot of interactions with citizens but it was all segregated into different places. And so they had all this information I was describing about voters and making these predictions that was refining who knocked on your door and who called you and what mail they sent you.
ISSENBERGAt the same time they were bringing more people than ever to their website. People were signing up. People were giving their mobile phones to get an early announcement of who the vice-president would be. People were giving unprecedented amounts of money online. And they never were able to match up that information on -- well, I think it was like 13 million people on their email lists by November, with the information they had on 200 million American adults in their other databases.
ISSENBERGAnd the campaign thought it was a major problem and immediately after the election in November they had these postmortem committees and they wanted to review what worked and what didn't. And one of the things that they lay out as a challenge was we need to integrate all this data. We're interacting with a given citizen in four or five, six different ways. We're asking them for money. We're asking them to vote. We're asking them to be a volunteer. We're asking them to be a volunteer online. We're asking them to give us additional information online. And we don't know that we're talking to the same person.
ISSENBERGAnd so they've -- it's incredibly unsexy but they've spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to pull information about voters from different sources so that if you've just gone -- if you're a Republican or you just went online and gave $25 to Barack Obama, they'll assume that you're a Barack Obama supporter even if you're a registered Republican. And if you just give $25 maybe they'll think twice before they call you and ask you to volunteer right away. Or maybe they will call you and ask you to volunteer right away but at least they'll know that you're the same person that they're talking to.
ISSENBERGOr if you went on the website and you signed a form about Earth Day maybe they'll know to send a piece of mail to you at your home address that has to do with the environment and isn't about abortion even if you look like a liberal woman who might otherwise be sort of responsive to what they have to say about reproductive issues.
NNAMDISasha Issenberg is our guest. He's a columnist with Slate and author of "The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns." We move on to Sue in Alexandria, Va. Sue, your turn.
SUEHi, Kojo and Sasha. I have been working for the Obama campaign since last March. And at this point, one of the things that you're talking about is they're doing what they call neighbor-to-neighbor connections. So we have neighborhood teams with team leaders who are creating phone banks, canvassing and voter registration. So we have been working very hard to break it down by neighborhood to neighborhood. So when I make my phone calls I am calling people who are in my area. And I can look at the street address. I know if it's a woman or a man. I know how old they are.
SUESo I can be talking to them saying, oh, I see you're on Midday Lane. You're right around the corner from me. And I hope, first, will you be voting in the election November 6? I get a response. And then what we're doing at this point is really trying to recruit as many volunteers to help with the canvassing and the voter registration. It will then move on, as we get closer to the election, we will be doing -- making sure that people know where they're going to vote. So the campaign seems to have quite a fantastic strategy as far as getting to people.
NNAMDIExactly. What Sasha Issenberg was talking about is simply not looking at those voters who are undecided and trying to persuade them one way or the other, but getting out your base and getting out as many people as possible, which is what Sue seems to be talking about here.
ISSENBERGYeah. And I write a couple chapters about the 08 campaign and what it did in a remarkable way was sort of fuse the left brain and right brain of politics. I think that sort of volunteers talking to their neighbors has always been the sort of unfocused touchy-feely communitarian kibbutz thing that people do in campaigns. And often means, you know, as the Obama campaign talks about empowering volunteers, and yet at the same time, the campaign was using all that data as Sue said, knowing their name, their age, and there are a thousand other variables that Sue is not seeing that are on a commuter server somewhere in Chicago, but -- that are helping to refine the predictions so that, yeah, she's calling somebody around the corner, but it's not just anybody around the corner, and it's not everybody around the corner.
ISSENBERGIt's somebody who's been selected through a series of algorithms as being likely to be responsive to whatever the campaign wants from them, whether -- and so they have a prediction now about the likelihood that you'll respond to a request to volunteer. They have a prediction about the likelihood that you'll turn out to vote if mobilized. And so what they do with great success I think is sort of combine -- is use data as the foundation, the sort of the -- the thing giving direction to the sort of humanistic part of volunteers, and then created this cycle where their volunteers were out collecting more data to refine their ability to use to data to del the volunteers who to talk to, and it became this sort of virtuous cycle, and they're doing that again in 2012.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Sue. Robin in Washington DC has another take on what the Obama campaign is doing. Robin, your turn.
ROBINYeah. Sasha, this is a good segue I think from your last comment. I got on Barack Obama's Twitter site, and before I knew it, my personal email was getting pretty much barraged with different things. It started with, you know, (word?) and requests from Michelle and Joe, you know, we're tight. As if I don't know it's a blast email. Then I really think they looked -- I live ten minutes from the red line.
ROBINThen I started to get requests for, oh, do you have an extra bed or maybe a comfy for our campaigners that are going to northern Virginia, and boy they -- I bet they're going to have some really interesting stories, blah blah blah. Then, now they want like me to host a debate party, and, you know, they just -- they know where I live, and it's getting really -- it's getting obnoxious.
ROBINI get three to four emails a day requesting...
NNAMDIDo you feel as if -- do feel as if your privacy has been invaded, Robin?
ROBINYes. Yes. It's getting obnoxious.
NNAMDIBy the mere act of going on the Twitter site, Sasha?
ISSENBERGWell, so did -- are you still there Robin?
ISSENBERGYeah. Now, did you give them your email address, or you just followed them on Twitter?
ROBINOh, I just follow them on Twitter...
ROBIN...and then they found my email...
ISSENBERGSo that part I don't know about, where they acquired your email. The assumption that they make when people sign up on the site and give their email is that you are a supporter, and they tend to be not terribly concerned, as best I can tell, with the idea of alienating supporters, and this may go back to the idea of how polarized...
NNAMDIAnd we get so much spam in our email anyway.
ISSENBERGWe got so much spam. We treat it like -- I think we sort of expect a volume of junk mail from people anyway, in this day and age, but they've made an assumption about behavior that is, you know, and this, I think goes back to the idea of polarization that people who are Obama supporters are not going to become Romney supporters because of few annoying emails. And so that the opportunity costs -- the possible downside of them asking you too often for money is just that you don't give money, which you wouldn't have done anyway.
ISSENBERGAnd there's very little fear on their part of a backlash. And so there's this sort of, you know, people are I think both, you know, jokingly, and seriously bothered by the volume and occasion annoyance of emails they're getting from the Obama campaign, but I don't think the Obama campaign is terribly worried about what you'll think of them afterwards.
NNAMDIRobin, thank you very much for your call. We've got to take a short break. If you have already called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your call. The number is 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can send us a tweet @kojoshow, or go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Have you been contacted by any campaigns directly or indirectly? What kind of information did they know about you, or what kind of information did they seem to want from you? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIOur guest is Sasha Issenberg. He's a columnist with Slate and the author of the book "The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns." We're talking your calls at 800-433-8850, and I think Jay in Reston, Va. can lead me into my next question. Jay, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JAYHi, Kojo. Love your show. I'm in Reston, but I live in Ashburn, northern Virginia, so my issue here is that no one has come by to our neighborhood. They've not contacted us. So I'm wondering, is it because they already know out voting propensity? They know who we are going to vote for? Is that what it is?
NNAMDIWell, one of the closest watched swing states, as you know, Jay, is Virginia, your state. Not just at the top of the ticket, but in a Senate race pitting two former governors against each other, Democrat Tim Kaine versus Republican George Allen. Virginia started trending purple in 2001 with the election of Mark Warner, a popular Centrist, built a unique rural urban coalition, but Tim Kaine won in 2005 using a different, more innovative playbook that targeted, I think people like Jay, correct?
ISSENBERGYeah. You know, so one of the big breakthroughs in this use of statistical modeling was in Kaine's campaign in 2005. And in a state -- for Democrats running in Virginia, there just weren't enough votes in sort of traditional strong democratic areas, African-American cities and sort of white liberals weren't geographically packed enough to mobilize to get to 50 percent. And so what the micro targeting allowed them to do was to sort of pluck out people who are geographically scattered, and one of the areas was northern Virginia where you have voters who are sort of fiscally conservative, work for the federal government maybe, but socially liberally, and the campaign could interact with them. Is Jay still on the line?
NNAMDIYes. He is still.
ISSENBERGJay, so do you -- can I ask you a few questions and we can try to work through this mystery together?
ISSENBERGSo do you vote in primaries?
JAYNo, I have not.
ISSENBERGNo. Okay. And do you -- do you give money to candidates or causes?
JAYWhat was that again? Can you...
ISSENBERGDo you donate money to candidates or causes?
JAYYes, I do.
ISSENBERGAnd are they all of the same sort of political persuasion, all on the left or all on the right?
ISSENBERGYeah. And so, can I ask which side?
ISSENBERGWell, this is what the campaign would be doing if they could get to your door. And so what -- basically what happens is they have all these different data points that I was saying about you. And if they tend to sort of predict things in the same line, then they'll assume with a reasonable confidence that they can assume how you're going to vote. And if you are somebody who is -- they have a sort of strong prediction about your partisanship or, you know, whether you're likely to be with Obama or Romney or with Kaine or Allen, and you are a very likely voter, you vote regularly, they probably won't ever talk to you.
NNAMDIThey'll deliberately overlook you. Virginia's an interesting example, because when you look at the political map at a county or district level, there are vast seas of red, but the key inside here seems to be that some of those red districts have lots of potential blue voters, right?
ISSENBERGRight. You know, so campaigns were very much restrained by geographical maps until about a decade ago because ultimately the precinct is the smallest unit at which we actually know how people vote. And so basically campaign parties would draw the map where they looked at the strong Democratic precincts, the strong Republican precincts, and everything in the middle. And if you're a Democratic party organization, you would into your strong Democratic precincts and you'd basically turn out everybody to vote, and maybe only 75 percent of them would be Democratic, but that margin, if you got enough volume would give you a lead.
ISSENBERGRepublicans would do the same thing in their areas. They would write off of the other side's strongholds and then the precincts that were sort of confused, you'd go in, and depending on how much money or how many volunteers you had, you would talk to as many people as you can and try to individually identify them, or look at their party registration as a guide.
ISSENBERGWhat the statistical modeling allows you to do is sort of automate that process of making the prediction so that you now have a prediction about every individual, and you could find somebody who's a strong Democrat but lives in an 80 percent Republican area, and using targeted communications like mail, phones, now targeted web ads canvassers, you can just talk to them even if they're the only person on your block that you want to mobilize.
ISSENBERGAnd what's it allowed campaigns to do is build their coalitions in ways that break down either the geographic categories like counties or districts or precincts, or the big demographic categories like race or gender or age, and start piecing together coalitions that can be more varied and more scattered, and in states like Virginia, it's allowed what was once the minority party, the Democrats, to be competitive in major statewide races.
NNAMDIJay, thank you very much for your call which brings me to this, however. Is there such a thing as a truly independent voter, or is the electorate made up of different partisans who are undecided about whether they will vote?
ISSENBERGYes. So there are very few -- so I think we should think of a few different distinctions. You know, undecided at its core is people who tell a pollster they're undecided. I did a piece for Slate right before the Iowa caucuses. It was called something like 13 ways of looking at an undecided voter, and people are undecided for various reasons. Some people literally are open to voting for both parties and haven't made up their minds. Some people just haven't paid attention to the campaign because they're not interested in politics but they end up voting, or they're sort of just low information, they don't know much.
ISSENBERGThere was a great skit on "Saturday Night Live" on Saturday about how ignorant undecided voters are, and it actually was fairly true to the social science of this. They really know shockingly little about, you know, how many Senators there are and who the vice president is. And then there are people who like to tell pollsters that they're undecided because it's a, you know, it makes them sound more sophisticated. I vote the party -- I don't vote the party, I vote the man.
ISSENBERGI'm going to wait for the debates. I want to hear what they have to say about the issues. Campaigns are realizing a lot of these people are predictable even if they say they're undecided, and there a lot of -- so campaigns will have -- they'll say fine, you're telling a pollster you're undecided, you're telling one of our canvassers you're undecided, but we know you vote in Democratic primaries every year. We think there's an 80 percent likelihood that you will vote for Barack Obama on election day even if you are telling strangers and telling yourself that you haven't made up your mind.
ISSENBERGIndependents is a different term and it differs in states depending on, you know, in Virginia there's no party registration.
ISSENBERGIn other states people have to commit to a party to effectively be meaningful participants in their local process. But a lot of people even who are registered as Independents, campaigns think of them behaviorally as Republicans or Democrats. Fine, your registration is Independent, but you act like a Republican. You either vote in Republican primaries, if you're allowed, or you regularly vote for Republicans and you look like you would be Republican.
ISSENBERGSo I think that the terms that we use, there are far fewer voters who are really up for grabs in this presidential election, or the sort of elections like Virginia's where there's a lot of information, the candidates are well known, there's a fiction that these elections are about people who haven't -- who really haven't made up their minds yet.
NNAMDIOnto Marco in Columbia, Md. Marco, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARCOYes. I had gone online and I looked at a poll that was specifically tracking undecided voters and I was, you know, following them for, you know, several months, and what this said was that, you know, early in the campaign they were tending to break for Romney, but now they're breaking for Obama, and I wonder if you put much stock in that, and I'll take my answer off the air.
ISSENBERGYeah. I think that this poll was one that was conducted by professors John Sides and Lynn Vavreck as part of their cooperative campaign analysis project or something, and it's the largest, I think, big survey going on this year, and one of the things that's interesting about it methodologically, as opposed to most of the polls that we see from news organizations or from other academic institutions is that have a paneled design, which means that they're going back to the same individual over and over, or at least I think three times over the course of a year.
ISSENBERGMost campaigns we ask 800 people this week, and then we sample another 800 next week. That's a perfectly fine sampling technique if you want to look at the aggregate electorate, and if people keep their methodology standard, then you put confidence that if Barack Obama goes from 44 to 49, that he moved. But what it doesn't allow you do is to know who actually moved in that group because it's a different group of people, and you don't have the individual records linked up.
ISSENBERGThis study which is sort of the new guard of academic election studies is useful because they are actually doing repeat interviews so they see the characteristics of people who have changed their opinion over the year. And so Lynn Vavreck wrote a piece that was great that ran -- part of it ran in the New York Times in the paper edition on Sunday, and the whole thing's online, but she does a great sort of dive into what we know about how people who once said that they were undecided have been changing their minds as they've been reinterviewed over the course of this election.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Marco. We only have about 30 seconds left. This is a hard issue to cover in the media since this work is mostly done, as you say, in secret. It's a secret science. How well have the media done so far covering this issue?
ISSENBERGHorribly. I wrote my own piece for the Times magazine -- for the New York Times a few weeks ago and I basically we're not up to the job any more. Campaigns have gotten a lot more sophisticated. We haven't. They have a lot of data that we don't have access to. They have ways of thinking about this that we don't, and I think that, you know, I think horse race coverage is a good thing. I think writing about the competition is good and important. I think we should know how people won, and I don't think journalists have the skills anymore to really deliver that to their readers or viewers.
NNAMDISasha Issenberg. He's a columnist with Slate and author of the book "The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns." Sasha Issenberg, thank you so much for joining us.
ISSENBERGGreat to be here, Kojo. Thank you.
NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff and Tayla Burney, with help from Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein. The engineer is Timmy Olmstead. Natalie Yuravlivker is on the phones. Podcasts all shows, audio archives, CDs and free transcripts are available at our website kojoshow.org. To share questions or comments with us, email email@example.com, join us on Facebook, or send a tweet @kojoshow. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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