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The victorious candidate was the best candidate, their campaign manager the best campaign manager and their campaign tactics the best tactics. The loser was worse, had an inferior team, with a poor plan and bad tactics.

This sort of logic pervades analyses of political campaigning, even when the margin of victory is razor thin. The perceived genius of Karl Rove and perceived incompetence of Al Gore rested on a wafer thin margin in Florida in 2000. A tiny movement of votes or legal opinion, and the post-2000 verdicts would have been very different. Al Gore would not have been frustratingly plodding, he would have been admirably stoical. Karl Rove would not have been ruthlessly effective, he would have been an eccentric extremist.

It is only rarely that the loser who actually got many things right, or the winner who really rather messed up, manages to break through the alluring simplicity of ‘they won so they’re the best’.

The question of whether the winner was really that good, or the loser really that bad, rests at the heart of Sasha Issenberg’s The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns. It is unasked by the author, but should be repeatedly asked by the thoughtful reader for one of the book’s main themes is the way that randomised controlled trials, of the sort common in scientific research and increasingly so in marketing too, are spreading to politics. Yet the political poster boy for testing tactics with randomised controlled trials was also a disastrous loser when it came to his big political chance.

Issenberg provides a very entertaining and well-researched history of how political scientists and political campaigners have splutteringly moved towards much more rigorous research into what works in political campaigns. Aside from one or two pioneering efforts early in the 20th century, this is really a tale of the late 20th century onwards, with campaigns splitting the electorate into different test groups and then seeing what difference it makes to try out different campaign tactics on them. Does sending one group of voters a letter encouraging them to vote have more or less of an impact than giving a different group of people a phone call, for example?

The appeal of such testing is that it puts the tools of political campaigning on a much firmer base than the reliance on gut feel of experience campaigners. It is also, of course, an approach already well established as being useful in working out what works in other closely related disciplines, such as marketing and digital campaigning.

The risk, however, is that the factors you are trying to isolate are of little value in a complicated world of numerous actions and diverse influences. Does that one letter versus one phone call test really say something useful for the real world of campaigning where people are on the receiving end of multiple other forms of communication, let alone factoring in the other ways their votes are influenced too?

What is more, do you therefore end up concentrating on how to optimise different tactics that, even when added together, are only a tiny factor in deciding an election, and as a result spend time and effort looking in the wrong place for the real secrets to electoral success?

That risk is personified in The Victory Lab by the aforementioned poster boy for randomised testing in politics, the American Republican Rick Perry. For a few years in the first decade of this century he was the icon for evidence-based campaigning, assembling a star-studded cast of political science advisors, letting them loose testing, generating evidence and applying the lessons.

Then came his disastrous bid to be the Republican Presidential nominee for the 2012 contest, leaving him looking a risible figure after he failed in a TV debate to recall the name of one of the three federal government agencies he had pledged to axe.

For all the interesting and smart evidence-based approach to political campaigning displayed by his campaign, it was myopic. Perry’s political career would have been better served by a wider perspective that remembered how often candidates get made or unmade by striking debate performances or speeches. Fiddling around with whether to make a third phone call to a subset of voters would have been better replaced by more of a focus on how to give brilliant speeches and how to shine in debates. (A parallel with marketing in the commercial sector is that fine tuning your social media adverts yet neglecting basic product testing may result in some very smart lessons being learnt about advertising, followed by disaster as the product failed because it is duff.)

Someone who certainly had the edge over Perry in speech giving, and – save for on his bad days – in debates was Barack Obama. His campaigns too eulogised testing, data and smart thinking about tactics. As a result, his 2008 campaign gets a heavy mention in Issenberg’s book (with 2012 much less so, giving the timing of the book's writing and publication).

There are fascinating details of how seriously the Obama campaign took testing, such as the way for 2008 it initially split its paid phone call contact program between 10 vendors and then rigorously checked to see how they were performing. Questions asking for the age of voters were cross-checked against official records to see which companies were really recording accurate information. Moreover, lists of names to call included campaign team members who then were surveyed on how well the calls were conducted. That list of 10 vendors as a result was whittled down to five by these competitive face-offs.

What is much less commented on, however, is how all that worked out for Obama in the vote totals. The state by state swing in votes between the 2008 and 2012 US Presidential election was nearly uniform across the country. As Larry Sabato’s analysis found,

"The correlation between President Obama’s margin in 2012 and his margin in 2008 across all 50 states and D.C. is .96. In other words, you can closely predict Obama’s margin in 2012 almost perfectly from his margin in 2008; his drop from 2008 to 2012 was fairly uniform...

"The biggest outliers are Utah, where Obama did substantially worse than expected in 2012, and Alaska, where he did substantially better than expected. Mitt Romney’s Mormonism probably explains why Obama underperformed in Utah, and Sarah Palin’s absence from the national ticket might explain Obama’s uptick in Alaska." [Source: Larry Sabato, Crystal Ball email newsletter]

This uniformity acts as a critique of all styles of campaign – savvy modern data driven and old fashioned mass TV advertising buying the same - because the picture condemns them all. The states that received the most smart campaigning, the most clever uses of data and the biggest TV ad buys moved no differently from those that were ignored.

Isenberg hugely praises the Obama 2008 effort, and understandably:

"The 2008 Obama campaign would become, in a sense, the perfect political corporation: a well-funded, data-driven, empirically rigorous institution that drew in unconventional talent ready to question some of the political industry’s standard assumptions and practices and emboldened with new tools to challenge them."

If anything, the Obama 2012 campaign was even better. Yet the 2008 and 2012 campaigns did not have identical targeting plans. Therefore, if all their efforts were making a difference, we should expect to see variations that demonstrate it. But remember that uniform swing.

Again, the lesson is: don’t be taken in by the exciting seem precision and novelty of specific tactics. There is much more at work.

What the Obama campaign also epitomised, and what Issenberg covers well, is the switch from targeting by geography to targeting by person, often given the name microtargeting.

Previously, geographic targeting, assigning scores to areas for their likelihood to vote and for which party, reached high levels of sophistication by the 1980s in the US. Then, the availability of more data in electronic formats, the accumulations of numerous – often consumer-based – new data sets about people, faster computers and a greater need to wrinkle out votes from areas previously written off all combined to make it possible and enticing to model which individuals were the best prospects for a campaign. No longer, for example, did all the voters in an area have to be written-off because it looked to be 80% Republican (the geographic modelling approach). Instead, individual modelling could be used to try to tease out those 20% worth paying attention to.

There is a huge competitive advantage in having the best modelling approach and so all the campaigns and their suppliers are rather coy about exactly what they did. What is however clear is that they had a range of sources of data about people:

- public data about neighbourhoods, such as from the census;
- public data about individuals, such as lists of bankruptcies;
- purchased data about individuals from private consumer data warehouses, such as who owned particular models of cars (although Issenberg points out that some of the most headline-catching examples of such modelling were actually not that useful to political parties; likewise in Britain the media stories about political targeting by yoghurt purchasing preferences has not led to canvassers staking out the chilled cabinets in supermarkets);
- publicly shared data from individuals, especially information they voluntarily share through social media; and finally
- data directly gathered from individuals by the political campaign, such as by getting someone to fill in a survey online or talk to a volunteer when door knocked.

The modelling of the likely behaviour of individuals, in this respect, is already very familiar in the mass consumer marketing world. Who shops at supermarket X and therefore which other people living in the area are the most likely new customers to win over? Why hasn’t person Y come back to shop there for 5 weeks? The political equivalents of those sorts of questions are now, as Issenberg documents for the US, becoming a common part of campaigning.

In total, campaign expenditure on the 2012 US political campaigns broke the $2 billion mark for the first time. That may sound a large number, but still comes out at less than $9 per American adult and is equivalent to only about 2% of the total US advertising market in 2012 (even though the political figure includes many non-advertising costs).

Though minnows when it comes to money compared to the commercial sector, political campaigns do lead the way at recruiting immensely talented people working fanatically hard for a concentrated period on very concrete goals. As a result, there is a common path from the political to the commercial marketing worlds of bright people, taking skills and tools honed on campaigns to the bigger budgets and year round work of the commercial world.

They are also spreading to the UK and British politics too, especially as the Liberal Democrats use the same core database package – produced by NGPVAN – as the Obama 2012 campaign, whilst the Labour Party have signed up the same e-campaigning firm as used by Obama, Blue State Digital.

The level of access Issenberg has acquired to the insides of US campaigns is not flaunted in the book, but revealed in telling details such as about the tensions between the Obama campaign and Blue State Digital over data being stuck in silos in the latter’s systems. That runs counter to the common public story and makes the book much more than simply an edited highlights of the public record.

Instead, the book accounts how campaigns are increasingly putting people at the centre of the marketing techniques – even if frequently only as numbers in an algorithm. The skills and research techniques documented in The Victory Lab are clearly very good for securing value for money from tactical campaign spending decisions but there is still the big question left: how much does such tactical finesse matter in determining the result of an election? Are these pieces of tactical wizardry the route to political campaign success, or do they distract you into a cul-de-sac, where you are left trying to squeeze the last bit of optimisation out of a tactic whilst the election is being won or lost on bigger territory elsewhere?

That wider question is implied too in the book’s epilogue, which accounts how attention amongst some US political scientists and campaigns (especially Obama 2012) has now started to switch towards questions of voter psychology, trying to understand both what makes voters tick and therefore how best to nudge them in the right direction. They are starting from the idea of how to make a voter change their behaviour rather than how to raise the cost-efficiency of a campaign tactic.

That is where the future lies.
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on 25 November 2012
In The Victory Lab, Issenberg charts the use of scientific methods in the practice of electioneering in US politics. What's fascinating about his account is that up until very recently there was very little science behind how elections were conducted, and there's been a noticeable disconnect between political science and the electioneers. The strategy was simply one of blanket advertising across different media, mail shots, debates, mudslinging and rallies. There was little attempt to scientifically measure and evaluate the effectiveness of different approaches, or to segment and target populations. Drawing on his own experience of a journalist covering elections and interviews with a number of key players, Issenberg provides an account of the rise of data and statistically-driven campaigning in the US, culminating in Obama's election in 2008. Because the chapters are arranged by chronology and by particular groups/campaigns, the structure tends to move to-and-fro a little. That said, the narrative it easy enough to follow, and the text is lively, engaging and informative. Somewhat oddly, there seems to have been no attempt to learn anything from elections outside of the US, and Issenberg's narrative barely strays beyond US shores. Overall, what the book demonstrates is the US elections are now being run like lab-experiments, underpinned by big data and statistical algorithms, and they're set to follow this approach for the foreseeable future.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 13 October 2014
This is a book about how to win an election in the age of high tech and big data. Campaigning is no longer about broadcasting a candidate's message to the widest possible audience. It is not even about distinguishing between a candidate's supporters, opponents, and the undecided to send a different message to each group. It is about tapping vast quantities of data available about most American adults and targeting each person with the most effective personalized strategy. And it is about finding the best messages, issues, even rumors, using experimental comparisons. It is about doing this below the radar, out of the awareness of the public. This is the nature of the modern political battlefield as seen by both parties. The strategy, tactics, and personalities who make this possible are the subject of this book.

The book's narrative is a collection of smaller stories. There are brief biographies of those who developed and refined new approaches to collecting and using voter data. There are success and failure stories of various campaigns and of major battles within those campaigns. And there are the specific tactics these people deploy. It is impossible to list them all, so here are a few:

- Using public records, pollsters mailed each person in a precinct a list of who had voted and who had not voted in the last election--along with an announcement of their plan to mail out updated lists after the next election. This increased voter turnout by 20%. When this strategy as put into practice, the mailers went only to voters likely to support the pollster's candidate, resulting in a selective increase in voter turnout.

- It is very difficult to sell new tactics. "If you do something different, everyone will point at the thing you did different and say that's why you lost. So if you're the campaign manager you don't do anything different. If you follow the rule book strictly they can't blame anything on you."

- Researchers do not find sufficient similarity among Republicans, Democrats, and Independents to use these broad categories. Instead they develop more specific typologies, such as the one from Times Mirror: "Two of the clusters were distinctly Republican (Enterprisers and Moralists), four Democratic (New Dealers, Sixties Democrats, the Partisan Poor, and the Passive Poor), and two leaning in each direction (Upbeats and Disaffecteds towards the Republicans, Seculars and Followers towards the Democrats). Eleven percent of American adults were found to be fully, and seemingly permanently, detached from politics; Times Mirror called them Bystanders." (See Pew Research's web site for a more current example of such a political typology.)

- It's no surprise that telling people they "should" do something produces defensiveness and resistance to change. But telling them that a large number of other people are doing it increases their chances of doing the same. This approach, developed by social psychologists to encourage general prosocial behavior, translated well to get-out-the-vote programs.

- Prospective voters asked if they would vote for an African-American often answer positively when they have privately decided they are not comfortable doing so. This has led to vote overestimates for African-American candidates. Researchers found they could get more accurate estimates by asking prospective voters if they thought their neighbors would vote for an African-American. This approach worked as "...a way of correcting for the inability of voters to be as honest and self-aware as pollsters like to pretend they are."

The book provides a readable and seemingly thorough account of how campaign tactics have developed in the age of big data. I would be a more valuable book if some of the biographical information were removed in favor of more detailed description of campaign tactics and statistical procedures. As written, it gives a sense of these techniques and how they are used. More detail is needed, if not in this book, then in a companion volume that is more methods-oriented. I'd like to see Sasha Isenberg write something like what the forensic linguist John Olsson has produced, both a serious text, Forensic Linguistics and a popular audience collection of interesting cases, Wordcrime.
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on 19 March 2015
Fluently written. Goes to detail, even extreme detail, in explicating finesse of electoral campaigns that have utilized big data and pre-big data. Recommendable quick rather than slow read. By 2015, you can buy this book really cheap.
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on 10 November 2012
Published mere months before the American presidential and congressional elections of 2012, "The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns" is an insightful exploration of the recent history behind the application of behavioral psychology and statistical analysis in influencing the current state of American political campaigns, especially with regards to shaping campaign themes and messages and in enticing voter turnout. Sasha Issenberg's book is a very reasonable account of current American political campaigning and one which promises to be viewed by many as a journalistic landmark that will be read not only by a general audience but also by those interested in shaping further the future course of political campaigning here in the United States. Issenberg emphasizes the important research of Yale University political scientists Don Green and Alan Gerber in emphasizing the importance of direct, personal appeals, by campaign workers to potential voters. Applying insights derived from behavioral psychology, the research done by Green, Gerber and their students would have important impact on the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. Issenberg describes how the use of statistical techniques derived from market research as well as from theoretical statistics would have important, dramatic impacts in data mining of potential voters which the Obama campaign used brilliantly in its 2008 campaign, as well as what may be occurring now within Romney's campaign. Without question, "The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns" is an important addition towards public understanding of modern political campaigns and one worthy of a wide readership.
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on 26 May 2014
This is exactly the product I wanted at a very reasonable price. Highly recommended and would use again. My thanks, Ian

Well worth the read and great insight.
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on 12 November 2013
Interesting book, but I expected more practical insights. It focuses a lot on history, which is OK. It gives a deeper dimension to political campaigning.
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on 24 July 2015
Excellent condition!
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