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Morning Feature – The Victory Lab, Part II: Who Votes How, Why?

November 16, 2012

Morning Feature

Morning Feature – The Victory Lab, Part II: Who Votes How, Why?

“WHETHER YOU VOTE IS A MATTER OF PUBLIC RECORD!” the letter proclaimed, followed by a report card comparing the recipient’s voting record to his/her neighbors’. The letters sparked outrage … and higher turnout. (More)

The Victory Lab, Part II: Who Votes How, Why?

This week Morning Feature discusses Sasha Issenberg’s The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns. Yesterday we looked at the familiar, precinct-based analysis and planning. Today we see the rise of data-mining and campaign plans that target individual voters. Saturday we’ll ask whether micro-targeted voter contacts provided the Obama campaign’s decisive edge.

Sasha Issenberg writes the Victory Lab column for Slate and is the Washington correspondent for Monocle, where he covers politics, business, diplomacy, and culture. He covered the 2008 presidential election for the Boston Globe, and has also written for New York, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Monthly, The Atlantic, and other magazines.

Yes, of course, I voted….

The idea for that voter turnout study began with a statistical anomaly. The Census Bureau conducts the Current Population Survey to gather employment data for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and each November in a federal election year they also ask respondents if they’re registered to vote and, if so, whether voted in the election earlier that month. They report the data, which offer an early snapshot of overall voter turnout. And each November, the number of people who say they voted is higher than the state- and nationwide totals of actual votes cast, as released by elections officials.

Political scientists thought there must be a methodological flaw. Maybe the BLS random sample was skewed toward voters and overestimated turnout. Maybe more people voted than elections officials’ numbers showed, because their ballots not counted for one reason or another.

To resolve the anomaly, researchers checked voter rolls and followed up with specific survey respondents, and they uncovered a different explanation. Simply: many nonvoters lied. They told the BLS survey they voted, when voter rolls showed they had not.

A Lying Shame

That explained why BLS turnout estimates were higher than the actual turnout, but it raised deeper question: why would people lie about voting … and what might that lie reveal about why voters voted?

Traditionally, political gurus looked at voting as an economic act that was, or at least should be, grounded in rational analysis. Voters should look at the candidates and their policies, weighing pluses and minuses as applied to the voter’s own wants and needs. Of course no voter really does that, so the gurus shifted their attention to why voters use heuristics, information shortcuts such as party affiliation or a candidate’s gender. The gurus decided voters weighed the time cost of gathering enough information for a fully rational decision, balanced that against the tiny chance their vote would affect the election’s outcome, and decided the shortcuts were good enough.

To boost turnout, the gurus told candidates, parties, and other groups to appeal to voters’ sense of civic duty, with aspirational messages like “Your vote may decide this election!” or “Your vote is your voice!”

Yet researchers looking at the BLS data saw something else. Voters were well aware of their civic duty, as many lied about having voted. That suggested voting was more than an individual, calculated act. It was a social act. One researcher decided to test that theory during a Michigan primary election, sending out five mailers ranging from the aspirational (“Your vote is your voice!”), to statistical comparisons (“Over 70% of people don’t vote in primaries!” and “Only 30% of people vote in primaries!”), up to outright shame (“Here are the voters in your household and their voting records!” and the neighborhood mailer described above). A control group received no mailer about the upcoming primary.

The results were … astonishing.

The researchers couldn’t count the number of outraged calls, as their voice mailbox filled within minutes after they cleared it each day. People wrote angry letters. A local columnist, who often chided readers for not voting, penned a furious screed because his wife and adult children now knew he hadn’t voted in recent primaries.

Yet the data were clear. About 28% of the control group voted in that primary. Those who received aspirational and statistical messages turned out in the low 30s. Family shame letters boosted turnout to 35%, and those faced with neighborhood shame turned out at the rate of 37%.

Geeks vs. Gurus

The gurus didn’t like the geeks’ results in that and several other studies, because the geeks’ data showed the gurus were little more than articulate storytellers who believed their own stories. The gurus would sagely tell candidates – or cable TV audiences – who would vote, who wouldn’t, and why. This ad or that event would be a game-changer, they would argue, often citing a past election they had managed where a similar ad or event had preceded some twitch in the polls.

Their arguments felt convincing, and their advice was expensive. Indeed a candidate’s hiring a top guru was – the gurus said and many in the media agreed – a litmus test of political viability. Into that flattering, profitable bubble waded the geeks, with data they said proved that much of the gurus’ advice was folklore and hokum.

What’s more, the geeks claimed they could predict which voters were persuadable, and by what messages, including many voters the gurus would never have even considered. Their regression analyses showed that a 26-year-old single woman with a college degree who mentors high school students … has more in common with a 33-year-old college-educated single woman who donates to the ACLU and lives in a reliably Democratic precinct … than she does with the other, mostly older women in the Republican base precinct where she lives with her parents.

Have someone call that 26-year-old single woman with a pitch about your candidate’s passionate commitment to education, the geeks said, and she’s likely to vote. You’re more likely to get her vote if the call comes from a local volunteer rather than a paid call center, more likely still if the caller asks questions rather than reading from a ‘robo-script,’ more likely still if the candidate sends her a mailer. And she’s most likely to vote if a local volunteer knocks on her door and speaks with her face-to-face.

That combination of data-mining, sophisticated mathematical analysis, and personalized messaging was the key to winning elections, the geeks insisted. And they had studies to prove it.

But as we’ll see tomorrow, the gurus weren’t convinced, and they haven’t given up.


Happy Friday!

  • addisnana

    Indeed a candidate’s hiring a top guru was – the gurus said and many in the media agreed – a litmus test of political viability. Into that flattering, profitable bubble waded the geeks, with data they said proved that much of the gurus’ advice was folklore and hokum.

    I absolutely love this paragraph. In the battle of the gurus vs. the geeks, I’d bet on the geeks every time!

    “Folklore and hokum” is a very polite way of saying that Karl Rove wasted lots of money this past campaign. I hear he’s now asking for funding to help him find his pedestal.

    Because candidates generally run to win an election, I’m thinking that Republicans who deny science at every opportunity are going to be scrambling to embrace this science. Most of the discussion to date on Why Mitt Romney Lost” has been done by the folklore and hokum crowd. I’ve read some numbers from the GOP about voter contacts but can’t tell if they are counting robo calls or what their definition of a voter contact is. I also can’t tell if they had an organized GOTV effort or if they outsourced that to the pulpits.

    • Jim W

      They probably count direct mail and TV commercials also. The guru gets a commission from advertising.

      • NCrissieB

        I was surprised to read that studies show well-written direct mail has a higher impact on voter turnout than even local volunteer phone banks with excellent scripts. Only face-to-face contacts score higher in voter mobilization: getting ‘friendly’ would-be voters to actually vote.

        The data are less clear on voter persuasion: convincing an undecided voter to choose your candidate. For that, phone banking seems more effective than direct mail.

        Good morning! ::hugggggs::

    • NCrissieB

      Voter behavior is very difficult to study empirically, at least in real elections vs. controlled laboratory studies. We’ll discuss some of the problems in depth tomorrow, but for just one example consider the need for a control group. That group gets no message – or only the standard messaging floating around a campaign (ads, news stories, etc.) – and the control group’s measured behavior sets the baseline against which the measured behaviors of test message groups are compared.

      That’s established experimental theory, but in an actual election few candidates are willing to risk having the control group. That group needs to be a large, representative, random sample (typically 1000-3000 voters) so the margin of error is small enough to allow meaningful results. But that’s 1000 to 3000 voters you are intentionally ignoring … and their votes – not cast or, worse, cast for your opponent – could ultimately be your margin of victory or defeat.

      Because empirical experiments of voters’ actual behavior are so difficult, Issenberg writes, ‘political science’ has been dominated by anecdotes, gut feelings, and well-told folklore. We humans are very good at telling stories that seem to explain complex events in simple cause-effect terms, and very good at believing the stories we tell. Unless someone gathers solid data to contradict our stories – and sometimes even when they do – humans tend to go with what we think “works.”

      So while the gurus do have a profit motive in believing their own stories, they’re not complete cynics who fleece candidates and their donors without caring who wins or loses. They want their candidates to win … and sincerely believe their stories hold the keys to victory.

      Nor is that confirmation bias entirely partisan. Issenberg reports on one of the most comprehensive, controlled studies of voter response … conducted by Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s 2006 campaign. Governor Perry gave his first campaign appearance at Texas A&M University, and local newspapers and other pundits pontificated on the meaning of the Perry campaign starting in Lubbock.

      In fact that location and the others for Gov. Perry’s first month of appearances were chosen at random, by a team of academics working for his campaign, to measure local voters’ responses to a candidate’s personal visit in their hometowns.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • winterbanyan

    This is absolutely fascinating to me: shame can turn out more voters than an appeal to civic responsibility. Even if they are outraged.

    Of course, you wouldn’t want to create that outrage attached to your particular campaign, although MoveOn sent “voter report cards” to about 7 million people in swing states, comparing their frequency of voting with their neighbors. I wish we had results for that.

    Regardless, I must admit I like the voter report card idea. Maybe as a general thing. It is, after all, public record, and we certainly used a touch of that in our vote-by-mail calls: “Our records showed that you voted by mail in one of the last two elections.”

    Yeah, you can be watched. 😉 Some folks seemed startled and asked how I knew. My answer was always the same: These are public records and are available from the Supervisor of Elections. I will never know how many people, if any, felt impelled to vote because they had a “record.”

    Fascinating discussion. Thanks!

    • NCrissieB

      One of the surprising psychological insights of that study was that voting is not an isolated, do or don’t, this candidate or that, either way it’s done act. It is a continuing experience that embodies both self and a sense of community. That helps explain why some people don’t take down their yard signs or peel off bumper stickers, or keep wearing campaign t-shirts and buttons, for weeks or months after the election … and often regardless of whether their candidate won or lost.

      Those signs, bumper stickers, t-shirts, and buttons express one facet of a voter’s identity – both self and a sense of community – and that identity began before and continues after the election itself.

      The ‘report card’ mailers work, behavioral psychologists theorize, because they challenge that sense of individual and community identity. To truly be who you claim and want to be, the mailer implicitly argues, you must act on that identity. If you don’t act – and we’ll know if you don’t vote – then we’ll know your self-professed identity is a fraud.

      Small wonder so many people were upset by the letters … and small wonder that so many of them voted anyway….

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • addisnana