At a wine-tasting-cum-briefing of volunteers at the Democratic Women’s Club headquarters in Washington last month, Obama campaign adviser Mindy Burrell stood up in a flowery dress. ‘Get people to visualise election day,’ she told the women about to knock on doors in the key swing state of Virginia. ‘How will they go and vote? What time will they go — after work? After dropping the kids off at school? What route will they take?’
If people said they planned to vote for President Barack Obama, the women were to ask them to sign a pledge card explaining why, which would be posted back to them just before election day on 6 November.
The volunteers, mostly lawyers or wealthy housewives, looked dubious. But Mindy assured them: ‘It’s all scientifically proven!’
Experiments by behavioural scientists have shown that getting people to visualise their voting day in advance increases turnout by three percentage points (ten if they live alone), while getting reminders can increase turnout by between five and ten per cent. In an election as tight as this one, where Obama and Mitt Romney are statistically tied, every vote (in a swing state) really does count, and such numbers are crucial.
While the media coverage is focusing on rallies and the last-minute dash by Obama and Romney through seven swing states, the real work of the first ever billion-dollar campaign is being done behind closed doors.
‘We have our eye on the wrong part of it,’ said Sasha Issenberg, author of an intriguing new book, The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns. ‘At best, what we are reporting is a small part of what campaigns actually do.’
Never before has a campaign combined, on the scale of these elections, social science on why people vote with micro-targeting from unprecedented access to information about voters. Both campaigns have spent millions of dollars to purchase so-called ‘data points’ from commercial data warehouses that collect details such as voters’ shopping histories, financial problems, and dating preferences.
Political operatives then mine these details of everything from till receipts to applications for loyalty cards to form a picture of everyday decisions by potential voters. From this, they try to formulate winning campaign strategies. Aides say they have collected an average of 1,000 data points on each voter.
Both campaign headquarters — Obama’s in Chicago and Romney’s in Boston — look like internet start-ups with all the young computer whizz-kids at long tables. Some have been recruited from Facebook, and they are doing things such as examining voters’ online exchanges and social networks to see what they care about and whom they know.
According to Issenberg, the biggest breakthrough in this election has been ‘linking a person’s offline political identity with their online presence’. This is done by planting software ‘cookies’ that can find an individual online and match them with their voter file.
He believes they have been able to find around 70 per cent of voters. The remainder either do not use the internet or, perhaps wisely, do not enable browser cookies. Cookies also enable the campaigns to see what voters are interested in — whether, for example, they frequent erotic or religious websites, or like particular sports.
If this sounds intrusive, it is. Voters get the sense they are being stalked around the internet. Three months ago, I went from checking something on the Obama website to looking at high-heeled shoes on Bloomingdales.com. Since then, any time I look at shoes on any site, an Obama ad flashes up. And not just any ad but one about his policies on abortion or Afghanistan, which I am interested in.
‘It’s an incredible tool,’ said Issenberg. ‘If I’m a campaign manager in Ohio and have a list of 100,000 voters I want to remind of the auto-bailout, say, in the past I could send direct mail or get volunteers to phone them. Now I can just give a list to the person who buys web ads and they will unfurl a small banner ad at just the person you want to see it.’
This is more effective than TV ads, which might be great as a storytelling medium but are hard to target. Not that this has stopped them — this year, there have been more ads than ever before, running at a rate of 10,000 per week in swing states such as Nevada.
There has been much talk in this election about ‘undecided’ voters, hard to imagine after all these months of campaigning. Issenberg says the campaigners are really aiming at two categories: ‘who is likely to vote but whose mind is up for grabs — persuadables — and those who already like the party but are not certain to vote’.
The best intelligence still comes from the volunteers who knock on doors. But just knowing that the main issue for someone is education or Afghanistan does not capture their views on the subject. An ambitious text-analysis programme has been developed to try and include that. Campaigns have run experiments to see if embarrassing someone for not voting by sending letters to their neighbours or posting their voting histories online is effective. Another test looked at whether a person is more likely to be motivated to vote by a phone call from a distant cousin or a new friend.
Obama’s campaign is way ahead on this. Not only were they innovative last time, fund-raising via the internet and SMS, but they have had four more years to hone strategy. Romney, by contrast, has had only six months, though as a former management consultant, he is described by everyone who knows him as ‘data-driven’.
Until recently, everyone in politics thought the commercial sector knew better how to locate and engage with their customers, and tried to apply that to politics. But Issenberg believes that the Obama campaign has now leapfrogged the commercial world. ‘Over the past few years, big advances have come from academia, which tends to be more on the left and feed into the campaign. There’s only so much now they can learn from Procter and Gamble about customers’ behaviour.’
In a country like the US where the population is split almost down the middle — around 47 per cent for each side — what might look like marginal activity is where the core of modern politics is being fought.
Issenberg cautions that it’s not magic. ‘If it’s a horrible year to be a Democrat, or you have a really bad candidate, no amount of statistical analysis is going to change the opinion structure of a race,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t make a hopeless candidacy successful.’
‘But,’ he added, ‘if this is an election that is decided by which campaign is more effective at squeezing an extra one or two points out of its coalition, it can make all the difference.’ In which case, he’d bet on the Obama campaign.
Christina Lamb is Washington bureau chief of the Sunday Times.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 27 October 2012