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Hacking the Electorate: How Campaigns Perceive Voters Paperback – August 20, 2015
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"With solid empirics, Eitan Hersh's Hacking the Electorate deftly deflates myths about the magic of microtargeting, while demonstrating how campaigners' perceptions of voters vary in consequential ways with the particulars of the publicly available data they draw on for the enterprise. The book offers an original and thoughtful perspective on an increasingly prominent campaign tool."
Gary Jacobson, Distinguished Professor of Political Science, University of California, San Diego
"Think political campaigns know you better than you know yourself? Think again. It's not what magazines you read or which beer you drink that drives campaign strategies, it's the information on public records gathered by local governments. In Hacking the Electorate, Eitan Hersh delivers a much-needed corrective to the myths of modern campaigning - microtargeting may be effective, but the algorithms are far simpler than candidates and strategists would have you believe."
Lynn Vavreck, University of California, Los Angeles
"You may have heard that campaigns have encyclopedic data about you and can use your choice of car, beer, or magazine to target a message specifically to you. You've heard wrong. Eitan Hersh shows what campaigns really know about voters, and how it matters. This is the first political science account of what 'big data' can and cannot do for campaigns. It is a must-read for academics and campaign practitioners alike."
John Sides, George Washington University, Washington DC
"Hersh offers a compelling account of the link between campaign strategy and candidate access to the personal information citizens provide to the government to register to vote. The book should be required reading for scholars of campaigns and elections, but it holds broader appeal to anyone interested in understanding the dynamics of campaign communication and the politics of public records."
Sunshine Hillygus, Duke University, North Carolina
"In Hacking the Electorate, Eitan Hersh has not only drawn attention to a critical feature of modern campaigns but he has also opened up an entirely new field of study in American politics. Commentators speak about the importance of 'big data' to contemporary campaigns and governance, but Hersh shows us the link between the available data and many well-known, if poorly understood, pathologies of our politics. Anyone interested in the trajectory of American campaigns and the important role of data and technology in them should read this book and heed its lessons."
Nathaniel Persily, James B. McClatchy Professor of Law, Stanford University, California
Hacking the Electorate focuses on the consequences of campaigns using microtargeting databases to mobilize voters in elections. Eitan Hersh shows that most of what campaigns know about voters comes from a core set of public records, and the content of public records varies from state to state. This variation accounts for differences in campaign strategies and voter coalitions across the nation.
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Hersh has a thesis, which he develops in the first few pages of the book, and then belabors to death. It goes like this: campaigns that engage in direct voter contact perceive the individual voters through the prism of the available data. Because the data that's readily available varies from state to state, the campaigns have different understandings of the voters in different places.
To provide a concrete example: in a handful of states, the voter's race is recorded and is part of the data available as public data. In those states, voters are treated differently according to their race, since race is so strongly correlated with politically important attributes, such as partisan affiliation, turnout, and persuadability. In other states, which don't record race, campaigns use other data, such as precinct-level voting statistics, to tap into the same predictive power. In those states, a campaign may break the electorate into categories like "lives in a precinct whose typical vote is 95% Democratic", or "lives in a 98% white Census tract". As a result, a white voter who happens to live in a heavily black precinct is treated quite differently, depending on whether his state happens to record race. In a state which records race, he may be targeted by Republicans, who try to pick him out like a raisin in oatmeal. In another state, where race is unavailable, he might be completely written off by the Republicans, but treated by the Democrats as one of their own. And of course, this divergent treatment is likely to lead over time to divergent political behavior.
That's Hersh's thesis, stated in 200 words. With additional examples, evidence, footnotes, and discussion, it might make a NY Times Magazine article. But why does it deserve a book? I didn't count the actual number of re-statements, but I guess he makes exactly the same argument fifteen times in his 220 pages. For that book, I would have awarded three stars. His writing is perfectly competent, and he seems to know his way around the academic literature. I'm a specialist in the field, but a week after reading his book, it had mostly grown dim in my memory. It just isn't much of a step forward; it isn't surprising; and it doesn't provide much illumination.
But then, there's the OTHER book. The one to which I would have awarded five stars. This is the book Hersh accidentally addressed to the five hundred people in the U.S. who live and breath the rarefied air of voter databases. In the course of gathering and presenting data to explain his intended topic, Hersh goes a long way toward resolving a battle which has been quietly raging among the database nerds. That question, which is unknown to the general public is whether complex modeling based on non-public data is a significant part of political campaigning. Hersh's answer: "No."
Every state provides some sort of access to the data it collects as it registers voters. (Technically, we might exclude North Dakota, which doesn't actually register its voters, but still keeps track of them.) That data, which varies widely from state to state, is certainly important to voter contact programs run by local, state, and national campaigns. It always includes name, address and voting precinct, but may also include age, gender, race, voting history, veteran status, political party preference, previous use of absentee ballots, length of residence, and - depending on the state - other surprising tidbits. Everybody uses this freely available public data; the controversy is over whether OTHER data is much used.
The popular press carries frequent reference to more complex modeling of voter behavior, based on "psychodemographics" or similar approaches, which supposedly depend on privately maintained data such as survey results, data collected by commercial marketers pertaining to consumer purchases, automobile registration data, and so on. It isn't far from parody to say that campaigns supposedly try to figure out which voters prefer cats to dogs, use that information to unravel their individual psychologies, and attempt to design different pitches that will be uniquely effective to the persona that emerge. Applying the technique to cat ownership may seem to trivialize it. Exactly the same sort of analysis is said to have been applied to possession of a valid passport, subscription to hunting magazines, ownership of muscle cars, being divorced, undergoing bankruptcy, and a thousand other latent categories.
Supposedly, the practitioners of this esoteric art have learned to manipulate the electorate in subtle an powerful ways. They charge high fees, because they need to purchase or assemble large and expensive datasets, and they possess deep insights into statistics, psychology, political science, and communication strategy. The humble practitioners (of whom I am one) who merely apply the data available from the local election office are left far behind - at least in marketing their services.
But has Hersh rumaged through hundreds of campaigns - including the Obama campaign, which is universally acknowledged the most sophisticated America has ever seen - he found little evidence of such magic. He found lots of evidence such data has been collected, and applied to political campaigning, but he found very little evidence that it made any major difference. And everywhere, he found a sense that those who had explored the more complex modeling had either given it up as impractical, or continued to pursue it mainly as smoke-and-mirror self-promotion.
The reasons, as Hersh explains, involve the practicalities of cost and benefit. Privately available data is expensive, it can't be obtained for much of the electorate, and its insights don't really have much political bite. Whether you own a cat simply doesn't tells us anything useful about your political preferences or predilections. Hersh presents his evidence on these points over several dozen pages, complete with tables, footnotes, and details.
Hersh argues - correctly, I think - that publicly available voter data has been implicitly designed by the political class to satisfy their data needs. Of course, the data is supposedly collected for the purpose of administration of the voting process, but Hersh (repeatedly) points out that much of the data collected has no genuine use to the people hired to collect and count ballots on election day. So it's no accident that the data available from the Michigan Bureau of Elections happens to be very useful when applied to the practical needs of political campaigns. If the data weren't useful, the Legislature would seize some excuse for changing the process of voter registration, in order to mandate the collection of whatever additional data might be desired. Where a particular data isn't collected, it may be that the party in power prefers the status quo because they fear a change would disproportionately help the opposition.
Anyway, Hacking the Electorate is a very important book - but only to a handful of people. For people whose interest in politics has nothing to do with SQL or chi squares, it may be a dud.