Obama’s data-driven approach may decide today’s race—and determine the future of the G.O.P.
By Jack Hitt/2012
Throughout the race, the two candidates have been acting as if the real fight has been between two visions of America. That’s true as far as it goes. But it’s also been a race between two different styles—the corporate sense of the world versus a kind of detached academic style. And deep below even those surface impressions are two very different understandings of how to win votes and influence people.
From the beginning, Romney has worked the campaign trail as a corporate manager. He has run on the metaphor of “the turnaround guy” all year, which is apparent not only in his sloganeering but in the syntax and style of his talk. In the third debate, for instance, his opening gambit on foreign policy was something right out of a board meeting. He cited his experts: “A group of Arab scholars came together, organized by the U.N., to look at how we can help the—the world reject these—these terrorists.” And then he set down his bullet points. “One, more economic development. . . . Number two, better education. Number three, gender equality. Number four, the rule of law. We have to help these nations create civil societies.” All he lacked was a whiteboard and a plastic platter of Danish pastry.
Then Obama continually would turn his comments to very specific anecdotes, clearly aimed at affecting a narrow group of voters.
When discussing Israel early on, here was Romney’s pitch: “When I’m president of the United States, we will stand with Israel.” Then he said: “I laid out seven steps.”
Obama pivoted away from the Big Sell, getting quite personal on the issue of Israel: “When I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn’t take donors, I didn’t attend fundraisers, I went to Yad Vashem, the—the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself the—the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable. . . . And then I went down to the border towns of Sderot, which had experienced missiles raining down from Hamas. And I saw families there . . .”
Over and over, we heard Romney speak in large, round salesmanlike terms, while Obama spoke with cunning specificity.
Romney: “China has an interest that’s very much like ours in one respect . . .”
Obama cited a specific fight: “We had a tire case in which they were flooding us with cheap domestic tires . . .”
Hello, Ohio. In fact, hello, tire-manufacturing belt running from Cleveland south on I-77 to Akron.
Romney: “I like American cars. And I would do nothing to hurt the U.S. auto industry.”
Obama: “You were very clear that you would not provide government assistance to the U.S. auto companies even if they went through bankruptcy.” And: “Governor, the people in Detroit don’t forget.”
Again, hello, Toledo and on down I-75, where a number of automobile-assembly plants are located.
The reality is that Obama’s anecdotes didn’t come out of nowhere.They were the product of years of analytical research, which have defined this race. Sasha Issenbergchronicles the rise of Moneyball-style statistics in politics in his new book, Victory Lab.And he shows that politicians have moved way beyond the kind of Frank Luntz focus-group research that microtargeted, say, gun-rack-pickup-driving, beer-drinking rural whites, or churchgoing Latinos in upscale suburbs, etc. Today’s analytics go much further and work differently. It’s one thing to know who’s who in great detail. But the new science employs ongoing experiments to see precisely which forms of media and which lines of text are more likely to move them from one candidate to another, or to motivate them to actually get up from their sofas on this magic Tuesday and vote.
This science is fairly new. It got its start at places like Yale University, where Donald Green and Alan Gerber first looked at the massive communications tangle of politics—robocalls, emails, letter campaigns, door-to-door visits, TV ads, radio ads, stadium speeches, television debates—and wondered whether anyone had empirically tested whether any of it worked. So they started doing the political equivalent of double-blind, placebo-controlled experiments.
The basic method researchers employ is to send different mailings or ads to different voters, then call them up to see how many have changed their minds. If they observe a statistically significant shift, the next round of ads can drill into ever-subtler lines and approaches.
This kind of work has revealed that certain lines of text targeted to a microniche of voters in a certain neighborhood are more likely to win over voters or motivate them than different lines of text in another neighborhood, even one right nearby. It has also famously determined that if, for example, you put a notice on voters’ doors arguing that they should vote on an upcoming environmental referendum because (a) it’s good for their children, or (b) because it’s the moral thing to do, or (c) because you noticed that their neighbors voted in the previous election but they did not, then (c) is far more likely to motivate people to get to the polls.
This year’s presidential race showed Obama to be more skillful at deploying the new knowledge than Romney. For instance, during the Republican primary, Romney mentioned “self-deportation” during one of the debates in Florida, leading him to be ridiculed by Newt Gingrich and others. The term was coined by Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach, the common author of extreme immigration measures passed in Arizona, Alabama, and South Carolina. It plays extremely well among a certain class of Republican voters. But in the world at large, it didn’t go over so well. The beatdown Romney received for using the term—even from his own party—was so severe that he hasn’t uttered it since. This is what happens when you use the hunch or the American Enterprise Institute cocktail party, instead of science, to field test something.
Obama has used test-and-refine empiricism throughout the campaign. By mining microniches early on, his team was able to develop its marketing strategy much sooner than Romney’s was. A source inside the administration told me that they were making cheap blanket ad buys back when Romney was still getting dusted by Herman Cain and Donald Trump. Other sources suggested to me that Romney’s team uses a very old-school, centralized model—again, a corporate model—to make its buys. This meant they were much more flexible but were buying later, when ads had become more expensive. So, when you read that Romney spent much more money than Obama, part of the explanation is that he had to in order to keep up, because of poor campaign planning.
Obama’s empiricism is the product of academics and social scientists. Issenberg’s book explores this mostly hidden claque, which goes by the Onion-friendly name the Analyst Institute. Romney, by contrast, even if he is generating similarly rich findings, is deploying them as thought they were corporate marketing data. He’s the grand pitchman of the conservative brand, focused on ramping up turnout largely among white men. (Imagine Frank Perdue on TV, but instead of chicken, he’s selling comfort-food whiteness.)
That’s what’s on the ballot: the power of business marketing versus academic, statistic empiricism.
If Obama wins Florida, Ohio, and Virginia by slim margins—and therefore wins the election—you can bet that the Republican Party will do more to change than merely reconfigure its messages to Latinos and women. It will completely overhaul its campaign machinery.
During presidential races, neither party can ever resist calling out old stereotypes about each other. We hear the same shorthand every four years: Democrats call Republicans a bunch of corporate whores; Republicans call Democrats a bunch of dopey intellectuals. This year, even on the least visible levels, that is indeed the race.