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Campaigns Build a New Humanism, via Direct Mail

Illustration by Tracy Ma Close

Illustration by Tracy Ma

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Illustration by Tracy Ma

Last spring, the Republican National Committee unveiled its “social victory center,” a website that party leaders said could serve as an online substitute for the “victory center” field offices it typically seeds nationwide to enlist and deploy volunteers.

As one Republican official explained at the time, the new online platform would let stay-at-home supporters be active in a presidential campaign “without actually having to walk into a victory center.”

The party has not, however, abandoned the brick-and-mortar model. Over the summer, Republicans christened dozens more of those field-office victory centers, running them in coordination with state parties across the country and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.

President Barack Obama’s campaign, despite having introduced its own “dashboard” Web interface and a new mobile canvassing application, has stuck to its Starbucks model of ubiquitous street-front locations -- 120 are now open in Ohio alone. There Democratic volunteers can sit at phones programmed to dial selected voters automatically, or be dispatched to nearby neighborhoods with curated lists of addresses and specific instructions for how to interact with residents.

After years of fascination with the rise of a digitally networked politics of mobile apps and social-media platforms, one could be forgiven for assuming that any remaining campaign field office would be as relevant as the record store, artifacts of a vestigial business model gamely indulged by sentimentalists.

Personalizing Politics

Yet for both parties, brick-and-mortar offices are more alive than ever.

“It’s about that person-to-person contact,” says Phil Valenziano, the director of Romney’s campaign in New Hampshire, where Republicans had six field offices four years ago but today have nine. “Everything we’ve done is geared toward finding volunteers, getting them into our offices, getting them a walk sheet, and getting them out knocking on doors.”

In the past decade, there has been a reawakening of American electioneering practices that had been dismissed as hopelessly obsolete from the moment television emerged as the dominant medium for political communication. The obsession with new digital-delivery devices perpetually obscures that the most important innovations in campaigning have taken place offline.

The high-tech revolution that has transformed elections has been most felt in a resurgence of lo-fi tactics such as volunteer canvassing and direct mail. Instead of cruelly mechanizing our elections at the expense of people, this new science of campaigns has actually served to introduce a new humanism to American elections.

A new political communication -- highly personal, delicately targeted, shaped by a nuanced understanding of the human brain and behavior -- is the marker of an epochal change in how Americans seek office in the 21st century. This can be credited partly by advances in computing power and expanded data collection, but also to the influence of the 2000 elections. It was after that near-tie that analysts for campaigns realized how hardened voters’ loyalties had become, and how closely matched the two parties were. Partisan polarization placed a new premium on understanding how to mobilize sympathizers, not merely convert swing voters.

The close margin in Florida led an insular profession -- “the only industry in the world where there’s no market research,” according to Dave Carney, Rick Perry’s top political adviser -- to look outside its ranks for insights. The best tools came from commercial marketing and from the academic social sciences.

New Certainty

When applied to politics, they gave campaigns new certainty about which voters to engage, and how. Fresh troves of data, including information collected by consumer-research firms from warranties, subscriptions and public records, have allowed campaigns to know enough about individual voters to confidently address their personal concerns instead of treating them as part of a bigger geographic or demographic unit.

With as many as thousands of variables on an individual voter’s database record, analysts are able to run algorithms that determine the relative weight of each one in predicting election-season attitudes and habits. These can include party registration or age or having a hunting license or whether you took a cruise in the last six months. In so doing, politics is effectively borrowing the logic of credit scoring and applying it to political behavior instead of financial habits.

When assembling a call list for a phone-bank volunteer or a walk sheet to hand to a canvasser, Democratic field organizers are usually working from a series of so-called scores: a zero- to-100 probability that a voter will identify with one party or the other, support a particular candidate, turn out to vote, be pro-choice or own a gun. Republicans typically group like-minded voters together into segments that are tiered in order of behavioral probabilities.

The futuristic automation is merely making old-fashioned campaigning more effective. So-called microtargeting scores have been most useful in helping candidates decide which doorbells to push. In many respects, the biggest advances in online advertising will serve only to make political communication as precise on the Internet as it is at the mailbox.

It is through the Postal Service that campaigns have developed their keenest ideas of how exactly to change a voter’s attitudes or behavior. To isolate cause and effect in the fog of campaigns, political researchers embraced the randomized-control trial, the same field experiments that throughout the 20th century transformed research in everything from medicine to credit-card marketing and developing-world economics.

Using voters as their unwitting guinea pigs, these “prescription-drug trials for democracy,” in the words of Rock the Vote President Heather Smith, have upended much of what the political world thought it knew about how voters’ minds work, and dramatically changed the way that campaigns approach, cajole and manipulate them.

Making Commitments

The paper flotsam in Obama’s field offices directly attests to this newly nuanced understanding of the political brain. Campaign offices are awash in “pledge” cards, on which citizens sign a promise to either register or vote, a device inspired by experimental findings showing that reminding people of their previous commitments can trigger positive behavior.

Obama’s canvassing scripts include the instructions “[ENGAGE IN CONVERSATION]” -- because other tests have found that what political operatives now call “chatty” interactions are more likely to mobilize people to vote. The weekend before the election, those canvassers will ask voters what time they plan to cast a ballot and what they will be doing immediately beforehand, but the questioners won’t write down the answers: Experiments have found that merely getting someone to rehearse a future activity in her mind will make him or her more likely follow through on it.

The most successful experiments have been ones that toy with voters’ expectations about what is public and private. Todd Rogers, a behavioral psychologist at Harvard University, developed both the turnout-message and plan-making tests, and then went on to serve as the founding executive director of the Analyst Institute, a think-tank-cum-secret-society that runs randomized-control trials for many of the left’s top institutions, including the Obama campaign.

He has attributed the impact of such socially minded interventions on changing political behavior to “the basic need for belonging.” Campaigns are the ones satisfying it.

(Sasha Issenberg, a columnist for Slate and Washington correspondent for Monocle, is the author of “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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Today’s highlights: the editors on Leon Panetta’s cyberwar warnings and on possible conditions for a Spanish bailout; William D. Cohan on how Morgan Stanley will save Wall Street’s morals; Albert R. Hunt on whether negative campaign ads work; Simon Johnson on the Fed’s new approach to big banks; Pankaj Mishra on China’s history as the happy hegemon.

To contact the writer of this article: Sasha Issenberg at sashaissenberg@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net.

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