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The Sabermetricians: The Digital Innovations that Win Campaigns

OVER THE LAST ten years, political campaigns have become extraordinarily sophisticated. New technology and an eagerness to identify and exploit the slightest competitive edge have turned campaign strategy into a number-crunching, detail-oriented science. Campaign coverage, on the other hand, has remained mainly concerned with unsubstantiated assertions and campaign lore: the attacks, the themes, and the advertisements that are assumed to be central to the outcome of the race, even without strong evidence.

Enter Sasha Issenberg, a journalist with interests that range from politics to sushi. (He is the author of The Sushi Economy, which explains the global economics of raw fish.) His new book, The Victory Lab, takes a hard look at the data-driven techniques of modern political campaigning. Through a series of vignettes, with each chapter dedicated to a different effort to reshape campaign tactics (one chapter might focus on a single person, another a broad subject like get-out-the-vote efforts), The Victory Lab recounts the efforts of entrepreneurial political operatives. Personalities, specialties, motives, and political persuasions vary, but all the characters Issenberg examines are unified by their commitment to empiricism; they want to know how to deliver the right message to the right voter, and they’re not that interested in the pageantry of the horse race.

Issenberg’s innovators throw the storied tales aside. Direct mail works better than a phone call? Prove it. The effects of advertisements dissipate quickly? How do you know? In place of these accepted legends, the new-world operatives measure effectiveness through the field experiment: trying a technique on one group of voters, while a control group is left untouched. Political scientists (read: eggheads) employed by Rick Perry—of all people—aired advertisements for varying periods of time across Texas, testing the effectiveness of each, and demonstrated that the effects of advertisements dissipate quickly.

But the most innovative approaches aren’t just those that rewire old approaches. The most decisive advances come when new sources of data—often from outside politics—are creatively applied to resolve fundamental challenges. The Republican effort to improve their get-out-the-vote operation after the 2000 presidential election is one such example. Geography gives Democrats a fundamental advantage: they are concentrated in cities, which makes door-to-door canvassing highly effective. Republicans, on the other hand, are generally spread thinner across more square miles.

To deal with this disadvantage, Republicans used massive consumer reports amassed by private companies detailing the purchasing behavior of nearly every American, then analyzed these lists to connect consumer behavior to demographics and political beliefs. After matching these results with voter registration lists, they had a distinct list of people to target with a highly specific message. Put differently: your HBO subscription might have led the Bush campaign to send you a flier about tax cuts rather than opposition to gay marriage.

Other advances came from the behavioral sciences, which helped to address a more fundamental question: how to persuade voters to vote. Turnout, as recent elections seem to indicate, can be crucial to a candidate’s success. As Issenberg shows, a sense that voters are being watched can motivate people to go to the booth. In 2006, three political scientists mailed a group of voters an outline of their and their neighbors’ voting history. The letter included a warning that the recipients would receive another mailing after Election Day. The letters said nothing else, but they proved wildly effective at boosting turnout. An enterprising political operative named Hal Malchow tried to persuade campaigns to adopt the technique, but these mailings were controversial, and risk-averse campaigns have generally refrained from sending similar missives. Some gutsy groups have adopted softer versions. In 2010, the group Women’s Voices Women’s Vote sent more than one million letters in Colorado to Democratic-leaning voters. Incumbent Democrat Michael Bennet trailed in the pre-election polls in Colorado, but ultimately squeaked out a narrow victory.

But who’s to say that these shiny new techniques aren’t spawning a new breed of mythology around the transformative potential of data-driven campaign tactics? Bennet’s surprise victory suggests he owes his success to Malchow’s letters, but can we prove it? Issenberg responsibly avoids the temptation to assert the absolute effectiveness of any of the measures he explores, but many readers will make more ambitious conclusions. And although Issenberg steers clear of arguing that new techniques have won or lost recent elections, he occasionally nudges the reader in that direction. It isn’t simply observed that Bennet mounted a comeback: “something was pushing Bennet even with [challenger] Buck.”

In reality, Bennet’s upset was not an isolated phenomenon. Democratic Senate candidates outperformed the polls in nearly every close 2010 Senate race. And while Bush’s vaunted get-out-the-vote operation in 2004 is widely credited with his victory, many of his biggest gains came outside of the battlegrounds—he improved more in Indiana and Arizona than Ohio and Nevada. None of this demonstrates that the innovative efforts of Bush or Bennet’s campaigns didn’t matter. Perhaps they did. But the effect of new techniques outside of well-controlled, randomized field experiments is difficult to prove. (For the most part, field experiments are conducted during low turnout, off-year elections, when there are a large number of latent, potential voters. In a high-stakes presidential election, many of these voters will turnout anyway.)

So campaign games are not Moneyball. An advertisement will never win a voter as clearly as a home run scores a run, and so there will never be a secret recipe for the most efficient and effective campaign, as the sabermetricians have nearly claimed in baseball. But for Issenberg and other quantitatively minded analysts, appreciation for sound methodology trumps the comfort of a simple conclusion—and I think his appreciation is well placed. Even if it is difficult to determine the effectiveness of field-tested techniques, their methodology is far more credible than most other tactics.

There are few other books that address the complexities of the political ground game, and those that do are too old to incorporate the rapid changes in campaigning over the last decade. Not only does the Victory Lab address the personalities and practices currently employed by modern campaigns, it also traces an under-reported element of the evolution of campaign tactics over nearly a half-century in an unusually accessible and engaging manner. And the book does not just recount the past; it describes innovations still in use by the Obama campaign, like their micro-targeting system that predicts the preference of every voter in the country.

As Issenberg has observed in recent weeks, the media over-covers the traditional elements of campaign politics, regardless of the empirical support defending their significance. The sound methodology underpinning the ascent of field-tested techniques more than justifies paying additional attention to these methods. They are indisputably essential to the machinations of the modern campaigns, and yet they remain poorly understood by the media and campaign observers alike. The Victory Lab represents a timely, rare, and valuable attempt to unveil the innovations revolutionizing campaign politics.

Nate Cohn is a staff writer at The New Republic.