Elections today are won by “nudges of turnout” with two points here and six points there that decide close races, especially in our polarized political environment.
To get these nudges, political scientists and professional campaign operatives generate and analyze thousands of bits of voter data, which is available through public record and market research. As a result, a whole new area of political science research has emerged that combines computer technology with behavioral science in order to determine who voters are and how they can be persuaded to vote.
Sasha Issenberg, author of he Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, spoke to students and faculty recently at the annual William Weber Lecture in Government and Society on how this sophisticated, data-driven system works.
The three-time author and political journalist for Bloomberg and formerly Slate and Boston Globe became aware of this new kind of campaigning during the 2008 presidential election when he covered John McCain’s campaign in Michigan.
Data-driven campaigns actually began in the 1960s with punch card computers creating databases on voters. In the 1970s, data was organized into precincts and included names of voters, their gender, age, race/ethnicity and political party affiliation. In the 1990s, campaigns copied consumer marketers’ tactics in identifying and persuading voters.
“Campaigns never interact with people individually,” said Issenberg, “but they are able to see the electorate all at once.”
Political scientists had been explaining voter behavior as a rational activity of citizenship. They also focused on measuring the effectiveness of television, radio, direct mail and phone banks.
In 1998, two Yale political scientists, Alan Gerber and Don Green, began conducting experiments that measured and analyzed voter motivations. They found that people act in the social context of their peers and can be persuaded to do something if they are thanked rather than if they are asked.
“You will probably get letters in the mail this fall thanking you for voting in 2012 and alerting you to the election on November 8,” said Issenberg.
Trump has defied the type data-driven campaign and instead plays to the mass media and Twitter.
“Trump’s campaign is not targeted,” said Issenberg. “He’s using his personality and persuasion through the logic of network television where it gets people to pay attention and hopefully come back to watch.”
The William Weber Lecture in Government and Society was founded by Bill Weber, a 1939 graduate of Kalamazoo College who until his death in 2011, traveled from California back to K College to attend these lectures.