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The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns Paperback – September 17, 2013
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“Indispensable. . . . Issenberg has a firm grounding in the political universe. . . . [He] paints his insurgents in heroic terms, putting the spotlight on campaign warriors few of us have ever heard of. . . . [The Victory Lab is] a magical mystery tour of contemporary campaigns. By the end, a lot of the mystery will become clear, and you’ll know a whole lot more about what’s behind those calls and letters jamming your phone lines and mailboxes.” —Jeff Greenfield, The Washington Post
“[The Victory Lab] traces an under-reported element of the evolution of campaign tactics over nearly a half-century in an unusually accessible and engaging manner. . . . A timely, rare, and valuable attempt to unveil the innovations revolutionizing campaign politics.” —The New Republic
“Enlightening.” —The New Yorker
“A magnificently reported and wonderfully written book, full of eye-opening revelations and a colorful cast of characters whose groundbreaking strategies and tactics have injected 21st-century science into politics and changed it forever in the process. The Victory Lab is essential for anyone who wants to understand what really goes on along the campaign trail—and a delight for those who simply enjoy a terrific read.” —John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, authors of Game Change
“Sasha Issenberg cracks open the secretive realm of modern campaigns, revealing a revolution that is influencing not only who wins elections but also the fate of the nation. This is a terrific and important book.” —David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z
“Sasha Issenberg is our most acute observer of the modern political campaign. With vivid portraiture and crystal-clear prose, he takes us beyond the charge-and-counter-charge, the rallies and stump speeches, to show us the hidden persuaders. This is the politics you'll never see on the nightly news.” —Richard Ben Cramer, author of What it Takes
About the Author
SASHA ISSENBERG is a columnist for Slate and the Washington correspondent for Monocle. He covered the 2008 election as a national political correspondent for The Boston Globe, and his work has also appeared in New York, The Atlantic, and The New York Times Magazine. His first book, The Sushi Economy, was published in 2007.
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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.
The book discusses this approach in detail - in fact, too much detail. Some of the history - especially the early days through the 1992 campaigns - is interesting. The remaining parts of the book - taking the reader to the 2012 election - becomes redundant and bogs down in names and seemingly endless and forgettable small vignettes and names of data scientists and rehashed approaches.
There is very little actionable here for most political scientists. It is more of a history than a how-to. Probably a useful read for someone fascinated by the subject, but for the casual reader, the book gets quite dry after the first 200 pages.
While the content is interesting, the pace of the book is painfully slow. There are so many different stories about so many different data bases and computer models that the book becomes difficult to comprehend and follow. I would not recommend this book to anyone who is short of time and looking for a quick information upload book.
It's also refreshing how well he traces the topic from 1920s Ivory Tower disciplinary squabbles to transit buses in Akron, merging the academic with the tactics, all the while hoisting up the dedication and curiosity of so many individuals without whom this revolution seemingly would not be the same. The 'strivers' are all so quintessentially American that you really just have to smile about how great a political journalist he is!