The New Political Campaign

As we look back on November’s election, we hope to understand what produced the outcome: what issues persuaded most voters, what policies carried more weight, what candidates proved more trustworthy. But Sasha Issenberg, a reporter for Slate, has come out with a book that suggests none of those things mattered. As she said recently to Politico: “journalists are still stuck in a paradigm where they think of the campaign as primarily an effort to change minds.” (See, “10 Breakout Political Reporters of 2012.”)

The people who run campaigns, though, see it more as getting the people who favor your candidate to actually cast their ballots. Trying to change their minds is a waste of time.

The study of voter attitudes supports that conclusion. If a voter’s mind is not made up already simply because his or her identity is “republican” or “democrat,” then it is shaped by perceptions about the candidate that cannot easily be spun by advertising or by debates, as we used to think.

This is confirmed by the fact that the tens of millions of dollars squandered on last minute campaign advertisements by conservative billionaires had such little effect. The advertising agencies profited as did the media outlets, but voters did not budge.

Clearly voters are motivated by various factors in making up their minds, many of which are unconscious. But the point is that it is much harder to change such opinions once formed. As Issenberg shows, the important thing is to figure out who will vote for your candidate and, then, getting them to cast their ballots. This helps to explain the stress on early voting, as well as the stringent demands for IDs to block voters from actually voting.

What it shows most of all, though, is the importance of massive amounts of data, good experimental techniques, and relentless analysis of how to motivate the voters on your side. Some voters can be encouraged to vote by being praised as good citizens or seeing such praise doled out to others. But, not surprisingly, the most effective techniques are those that threaten the targeted citizens with mild feelings of guilt should they fail to cast their ballots. That can backfire, of course. If the message is too blatant or crude, the potential voter will feel resentment and anger. But deftly conveyed it has a significant impact.

All along, the news media were preoccupied by the “undecided” voters, those who might be persuaded by either side. The media are still focusing on that, though the conventional wisdom is coming around to the view that “undecided” voters may just be unwilling to speak their convictions or, even, acknowledge them to themselves. Increasingly the campaigns are using massive amounts of data to determine the probabilities and, then, going after their targets.

Each party spent over a billion dollars in the last campaign. Now it seems inevitable that more money will have to be raised to support these sophisticated, data-driven campaigns. There will still need to be ads and debates because they are expected. But the biggest budgets will be going to target voters more and more precisely.