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Sasha Issenberg's The Victory Lab reveals
Independent Candidates Can Learn to Succeed
Political reporter Sasha Issenberg has given us a new book that is a must-read for political independents, either those running for office or supporting independent candidacies. The Victory Lab is an informative, entertaining narrative of the brief history of U.S. political science, and a survey of emerging twenty-first century political methodology. Its subtitle, The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns tells us exactly why this primer is so important for independents.
The 2012 election season, with its myriad independent candidates at all levels and the first trial of California's new top-two primary system, was yet another disappointment in terms of victories. The only major independent winners were Maine's Senator Angus King and Vermont's reelected Senator Bernie Sanders. No independent U.S. Representatives were elected, and few state and local candidates. Most independents logged embarrassing failures and losses. Surely, indies everywhere can benefit by learning the science of winning.
Issenberg details the state of the art in political strategy and data science. Just as important though, he walks readers through the history of those disciplines-a walk that's vital to those who would learn from mistakes of the past without repeating them.
It's surprising to read how little was known sixty years ago, even at the highest levels of politics, about the most fundamental questions of political behavior: why people vote, and why they vote as they do. The perceived political experts of the twentieth century were the accidental wizards of whichever campaign had won the most recent major election. Everyone assumed that all the winners' theories and strategies had been right, and that all the losers' ideas had been wrong. Then when successful tactics from one election cycle failed in the next, no one knew why. Precious little data and analysis entered the process.
A relative handful of people, most of whose names will be unfamiliar, changed all of that-but it wasn't easy, and it wasn't quick. Some of this small tribe of innovators were politicos, but many were social scientists, statisticians and computer geeks. They weren't so much interested in effecting political change as in simply using politics as a laboratory to learn what they could. Some were politically neutral by deliberate choice, and a few seem to have been apolitical, and worked for whichever candidate or party would have them.
They didn't know how to do politics; they learned how, through experimentation and analysis. Political practitioners leapfrogged with marketers. Sometimes the politicos learned from the world of business marketing-but often marketers learned from political scientists. The history of that process is a primer for independent candidates who must simultaneously invent and learn a new politics.
Issenberg walks us through the victories and defeats of these budding political scientists-not principally their election-day wins and losses, but their struggles to even be heard, and to find places to do meaningful field research. He also shows us what they learned, not in the arcane language of statistics, but in the readable, relevant languages of politics and human behavior.
He relates previously untold and little-known stories from the presidential campaigns of Jack Kennedy and George W. Bush, and from gubernatorial campaigns of Mitt Romney and Tim Kaine. There are losers' stories, too-just as informative.
All of this is especially relevant for independents. If fifties and sixties political operatives knew little about the motivation and behaviors of Republican and Democratic voters, today's independent politicians and their strategists know next to nothing about how independent voters tick, and even less about what can motivate partisan voters to act independently.
Issenberg doesn't answer those questions-he can't, because the answers aren't yet known. But his book describes the means and methods of today's most sophisticated partisan strategists. Independent readers can learn a lot if they seek to study those descriptions, rather than rejecting them because the methods are partisan or outsized.
Much of what twenty-first century partisan political scientists are doing is especially applicable to indies. Their methods rely heavily on micro-targeting and direct voter contact. Once there were two major segment descriptors for voters: Democrat and Republican-then liberal and conservative. Today, the major parties and campaigns segment the political marketplace into dozens and hundreds of categories, using randomized experimentation and statistical modeling with such precision that two next-door neighbors can be contacted by mail, phone, or personal visits in completely different ways. They target people, not precincts or state house districts-they speak to specific political and social ideas rather than to broad ideologies.
And while mass-market advertising still has its place, segmented, personal tactics can be far more powerful. Much of this personal contact is simple and inexpensive when compared with saturation TV advertising. It can be scaled efficiently to the size of congressional and local campaigns.
Such tactics are further empowered by breakthrough understandings in behavioral psychology. Political scientists are learning how people want to be seen by their neighbors and peers, how those desires become political motivators, and how those understandings can translate into more effective political methods.
The first part of The Victory Lab is fascinating and informative, but its last chapters turn dramatic, taking readers on a political thrill-ride through the 2008 Obama campaign and the run-up to the 2012 contest, with critical details about campaign data and targeting operations. Every episode is captivating, and nearly every paragraph offers a valuable tactical or strategic suggestion for an indy campaign.
Narrative vignettes follow individual campaign officials in several cities-some of them working for Obama out of admiration, some almost by accident. These are the individual stars of Obama's success story, who invented strategies, wrote complex algorithms that solved problems before they were identified, generated valuable real-time information, and essentially reinvented operational politics.
Here readers will see that neither Obama nor his campaign manager, David Plouffe, engineered the heart of this campaign. That was done by quants-the geeks, nerds, academics and gamers who knew what they didn't know, and found ways to learn it. It's exactly what independent candidates and their campaigners must do to become election winners. They must learn to succeed.
Independent candidates won't be taken seriously until they learn how to win important elections with some predictability. And they won't begin winning those elections until they are taken seriously. For independents seeking congressional and local offices, this vital book can be the entry point into that Catch-22 loop.
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