Overview of Issenberg’s “The Victory Lab”


In April 2013 I assembled and posted on yorkdems.com a long blog giving an overview of Sasha Issenberg’s Sept. 2012 book The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns. In that blog I also included links to more recent updates to the Nov. 2012 Presidential election, and to other works on Getting Out the Vote (GOTV).

Follow this link to an overview of Issenberg’s “The Victory Lab” at yorkdems.com. It gives a summary of what we know about increasing voter turnout and improving the chances of winning in swing districts. I have also copied that post to this page.

An Overview of Issenberg’s “The Victory Lab?

Many of the examples below are drawn from Sasha Issenberg’s Sept. 2012 book The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns (Click here for the Amazon.com description.)

KEY NOTION – Since the 2000 election there are almost no swing voters left. A number of “swing states” are very close in vote, so being smart in registering new voters and in increasing turnout of supporters can produce the margin needed for victory. TV ads and traditional mailing, etc., have become less effective, as more people already have their minds made up about whom they will vote for. Many fewer people split their ticket now than even twenty years ago.


Mobilizing people to register to vote

  • Science on turn-out has improved over last decade. Many tricks learned – some discussed below. The Obama 2012 campaign used many of these techniques (playing on guilt, getting people to plan, etc.)

Microtargeting selected messages to very specific individual target audiences to convince some portion of them to change their vote (and to actually get out to vote).

  • What steps can you take to figure out what issues are of interest to which people who may not normally vote your way, and with marketing them on this issue change their vote?
    • Example: Bush Ohio campaign in 2004 aimed at AFL-CIO members on “kahki” issues – vote for war-President Bush because of concern about War on Terror, even if his group is against your normal economic interests. Using polling and “regression equations” the 2004 GOP presidential campaign figured out a large number of SPECIFIC NAMES likely to be in this category and went after them, with sufficient success to grab Ohio (and the Presidency) from Kerry.
    • Example: Obama 2012 campaign finding that single women only 20-40% likely to vote for Obama (strongly leaning Republican) were more susceptible to “War on Women” appeals and likely to vote Obama based on this single issue. In effect a new definition of a specific group of undecided voters who can be persuaded to change their vote on a single issue. Targeted mailings, phone calls, door-to-door, etc. directly to specific individuals in this category (microtargetting), and took critical votes from Romney.

Key questions in any research on campaign methods. What techniques deliver the most votes per dollar – media buys, candidate visits, mailers (to whom and what kind), phone banking, door-to-door, actual persuasion discussions.

For a simplified description of this microtargeting process the Democrats have gotten better at click through to this Politico story GOP digital divide may take years to bridge.

Or you might want to check out the Nov. 2012 article by Sasha Issenberg in Slate titled Why Obama Is Better at Getting Out the Vote.

The Victory Lab has little on the 2012 election cycle. Issenberg has covered the 2012 election in some detail in an article published in Dec. 2012 in The MIT Technology Review titled How President Obama’s campaign used big data to rally individual voters – (the full link is http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/509026/how-obamas-team-used-big-data-to-rally-voters/ ).

There the individual-level data models (actually regression equations predicting outcomes for people not interviewed combined with actual polling data, phone calls, door-to-door results) successfully predicted Republican Scott Brown’s victory over Martha Coakley in the MA special Senate election to replace Ted Kennedy, and forecasted the 2010 Democratic disaster in the House of Representatives because of lower-than-expected turnout from Democrats (based on actual contacts with a sample of the voters). But by 2012, with some hyperbole, Issenberg declares that the Dems individual-level models have created “a new political currency that predicts the behavior of individual humans. The campaign didn’t just know who you were; it knew exactly how it could turn you into the type of person it wanted you to be.” If this is true, these methods should be interesting to study.

Thoughts on winning elections (drawing from Issenberg’s The Victory Lab)

Political operatives have long thought of winning a vote as a three-step process. First a voter needs to be registered. Then comes “persuasion” — the challenge of getting the voter to support your candidate. Finally, once a person has been registered and persuaded, the campaign has to convert that support into a vote: mobilizing the voter to actually vote, through get-out-the-vote operations, often known simply as GOTV, that can include a battery of last-minute reminders by phone or mail or election-day visits offering a ride to the polls.

Segmentation – VAN (Votebuilder)

The Voter Activation Network (VAN) was the Web interface that Democratic field organizers used to interact with the huge voter databases maintained by various Democratic campaigns. The software was initially developed for Iowa Democrats in 2001. The SC VoteBuilder is one instance of a VAN. (Pg 244, Kindle Locations 3865-3866)


The [Obama 2008] campaign’s obsession with documenting metrics meant that it was generating far more potentially useful data than any of the working locations would have time to sift through. Simon, who became Team 270’s [270 electoral votes needed to win the electoral college] lead targeting analyst, enlisted a group of Democratic consultants who weren’t formally affiliated with the campaign as what he called the targeting desk’s “kitchen cabinet,” a panel able to take on discrete research questions beyond his department’s daily operations. Simon introduced the kitchen cabinet to a largely secret stockpile of data known within the Obama campaign as the Matrix. It was a centralized repository that would gather every instance of the campaign “touching” a voter, as field operatives like to put it, including each piece of mail, doorstep visit, and phone call, whether from a volunteer or a paid phone bank. It had its origins in the Iowa Contact Matrix, which compiled each contact that came in through the VAN so field staffers could track their activity. (Pg. 263, Kindle Locations 4161-4169).

Assigning Voter ID (likelihood to vote for your candidate)

Strasma believed it would be possible to simulate IDs for the whole electoral universe, regardless of whether the campaign was ever able to talk to voters directly about their preference. By writing statistical algorithms based on known information about a small set of voters, he could extrapolate to find other voters who looked— and presumably thought and acted— like the known voters. If he could identify enough matchable variables from one set to the next, the campaign could treat these virtual IDs as an effective replacement for hard IDs where it couldn’t get them. (Pg. 248, Kindle Locations 3924-3928).

For example of the 100 voters in the spreadsheet, the campaign might have hard IDs for only 10. The task of the modeler, Simon explained, was to direct computers to solve for X, assigning a candidate preference into each of the 90 empty cells based on the 10 that were full. The algorithms that would make those calculations could simultaneously pull in thousands of variables to test for the weight each of them should have in the equation. Issenberg, The Victory Lab (Pg. 266, Kindle Locations 4207-4210).

[For more background in microtargeting in business language see this interview with Ken Strasma in the Nov. 2012 Harvard Business Review titled Electing a President in a Microtargeted World.]

In 2008, by the time of the Republican convention in early September, the Obama campaign was placing well over one hundred thousand paid ID calls a week nationwide, with all the data feeding into Strasma’s computers. (Pg. 270, Kindle Locations 4280-4282

New information that would come in from paid phone IDs could help hone the predictions to reflect enthusiasm levels and preferences specific to the 2008 race.

Look at the section on “shifters”. Could track as Obama percentage likely ID for particular segments shifted, the campaign was able to create a model of these voters they called “shifters.” [Example, women in many segments showed increasing McCain ID scores after Palin was nominated, but started shifting back toward Obama in a couple of weeks. From this data they could see that the Palin bounce was short-lived, even before the public opinion polls showed it. Almost a “fortune-telling” aspect.] Starting at Pg. 270 (Kindle Location 4275).

Quality control measures on phone banks: The Obama campaign hired multiple paid calling centers to collect the information needed for Hard IDs. They included a question at the end of each phone script that ask voters for their age. Too often they found that what came back from the vendors in the age question didn’t match up with the date of birth on the voter file. None of the campaign officials who had privately accused phone vendors of fabricating data had ever thought to audit them in the midst of the campaign. There was no way, short of calling voters back and confirming their answers, to see if a call center had accurately tallied their candidate preference, but date of birth was an independently verifiable fact (and, since it came from government registration records, highly reliable). “It was something they couldn’t make up,” says Simon. (Pg. 267, Kindle Locations 4226-4231). Those delivering many bad dates were fired – they clearly were not getting through the script and at times making up answers? And since the answers were critical in creating “Soft IDs,” good work was essential.

By the time of the Republican convention in early September 2008, the Obama campaign was placing well over one hundred thousand paid ID calls a week nationwide, with all the data feeding into Strasma’s computers. (Pg. 270, Kindle Locations 4280-4282

Voter registration – target segments likely to vote your way, and increase registration in those groups

Good example of one method – how to win the 2008 Iowa caucus and beat Clinton.

If turnout to the Iowa Caucuses was around 125,000, as it had been in 2004, Obama would have no shot of winning. For Obama to win, total turnout might have to reach 180,000, far more Democrats than had ever before participated, a particular challenge in a year when Republicans had their own wide-open primary fight. (Pg. 251, Kindle Locations 3970-3973).

Strasma was also looking for people who weren’t on the Democratic rolls, or even yet voters. Iowa residents who would turn eighteen by November’s election day were allowed to participate in caucuses, but no campaigns had ever gone after the population of eligible seventeen-year-olds, in part because no one knew who they were— since they weren’t registered and had no political history, they didn’t show up in the state voter file. The Obama campaign, desperate to reach its 180,000 target, created a “BarackStars” program to contact Iowa high school students, and it was Strasma’s job to help field organizers find them. “I had never before been involved in a campaign where that was such a rich vein to mine,” he says. Strasma acquired lists of high school seniors who had taken the ACT college admissions test, names typically marketed to college admissions officers seeking to mail potential applicants. Also used school directories, etc.

As the BarackStars initiative progressed, Obama’s Iowa team worked to avoid a mistake Howard Dean had made in 2004 with college-age supporters. When Strasma’s scores identified Iowa college students as targets, a field staffer would call to convince them that it was more useful for them to caucus at their home address than at their school, to disperse them in precincts across the state and not just pack them into those surrounding campuses. Strasma suggested this would also have a beneficial plan-making effect: talking aloud about the details of where they would vote was likely to increase their chances of following through on it. (Pg. 253, Kindle Locations 3999-4003).

Not only did the Obama team easily meet their goal of delivering 180,000 Iowans at the caucuses, they got 239,000. News reports relied on exit polls to describe who they were: half were participating in a caucus for the first time, and the share of voters under the age of twenty-five had tripled from Kerry’s win four years earlier. (Pg. 256, Kindle Locations 4048-4051).

Examples of Persuasion – testing messages on particular segments, then deliver to others in the same segment

Example: 2001 GOP Gubernatorial race – VA. Targeting social conservatives, home schoolers in Frederick Co. w/ mail/phone persuasion, raised conservative turnout by 4% over control county (Roanoke, where they did “regular” campaigning.)

  • Earley ran five points stronger in Frederick than he did in Roanoke, four points of which their later analysis credited specifically to the coalition exercises they had run to motivate social conservatives. “That was like, ‘Oh my God!’ ” says Hazelwood. “That was pretty shocking to me, that we could increase turnout that much.” (Pg. 103, Kindle Locations 1616-1619

Romney campaign [2002 MA] testing found a HBO Cable TV subscription correlated with likely Romney voters (MA Govenors race, 2002). Used mailing lists purchased from HBO to target these people in mail brochure persuasion. Also able to assign the campaign’s five thousand volunteers to speak to those persuasion targets who lived within their own neighborhoods. [Sidenote: the survey polls showed Romney 5% behind two weeks before the election. But the late microtargeting worked – Romney won by about 5% points. This may explain why he was so confident he would win in 2012 even though the polls showed him behind – he just ran into a better ground game with better models. What was innovative in 2002 no longer was “state of the art” by 2012.]

Bush campaign-2004. Used microtargeting to separate those already on board from those who will never be, and then sifting through the remainder to identify the best voters to receive mail, phone calls and door visits making the case for Bush. The Republicans were doing something different in 2004. By the last weekend of the campaign, there were six thousand field-workers walking streets with clipboards or manning phone banks. Many of these were targeted toward places that had never before seen Republicans hunt for votes, let alone in such a disciplined fashion.

Able to identify persuadable union voters in heavily Dem areas who might vote for Bush. Now, Bush’s strategists could count the number of voters they were trying to reach in Duluth, even if they were a minority, in the hopes of tipping the whole state—“ real people who support you behind enemy lines,” as Nelson put it.

The microtargeting managed the message. Minnesotans who received federal farm subsidies were almost certain to get a piece of mail arguing that Bush’s free-trade position would not damage the state’s sugar beet economy as badly as many farmers believed. Moderate Republicans in the Philadelphia suburbs learned about Bush’s support for the Clean Skies Initiative, which the campaign presented as a policy of pragmatic environmentalism. (Pg. 138, Kindle Locations 2167-2170).

Used anger points questions revealed a group of voters who usually would not support GOP that were emotionally sensitive to the war on terror. With direct mail persuasion pieces got many to vote for Bush. (Pg. 141, Kindle Locations 2225-2226). [Not yet clear how well the anger points approach worked in 2012.]

The 2004 Bush Campaign “stole” Ohio by identifying enough Union members whose hot button or anger point was the “War on Terror” and thought Bush would do a better job at that war than Kerry, contacted and courted these folks identified by their models as being persuadable. It worked! It did not require just voter suppression, but the “stealing” of people who normally would vote Democratic and convincing them that their candidate would do a better job on an “anger point” that turned out to be important to these folks.

Dems could not quite figure out what the Bush people were up too during the 2004 election. Only after the results and Rove and others taking victory laps could the real panic set in. (p. 156). Laura Quinn (with others) finally figured out the key was “microtargeting,” or predicting AT AN INDIVIDUAL LEVEL supported by some polling how persuadable specific individuals were, and going after them. Dems then set to work on getting really good at this. The realization dawned that it was not just having the data and individual voter IDs, but also building a campaign structure that can go after the persuadables and putting the literature in the hands of volunteers and targeted mailers and phone calls.


How about a candidate’s visit to particular areas? Data from the 2006 Rick Perry Texas govenor’s race. Actually did real field experiments, with some counties getting a treatment and the others getting the old conventional stuff.  For example, the Perry Brain Trust paid attention to impact on news stories — When Shaw coded the stories in all twelve “experimental” markets on a five-point scale of how good they made Perry look, they found that the campaign stop warmed the tone of the coverage in all but one. In the eight control markets that Perry didn’t visit, the governor was barely covered in the media during the same period. (Pg. 241, Kindle Locations 3821-3823).

Also the data showed that the impact of Perry’s visits on improving percentage favoring lasted longer than did the impact of TV ads in the control areas. “The actual visits make a bigger, more lasting impact than just being on the news [and having paid TV ads]. It makes you realize it’s a better use of your time.” (Pg. 241, Kindle Locations 3832-3833).


Gerber & Green, Get Out the Vote! — a “shoppers’ guide” for candidates and activists, filled with ratings (up to three stars) of different campaign methods based on the reliability of the academic findings. “Door-to-door canvassing by friends and neighbors is the gold-standard mobilization tactic,” Basically argued for shifting resources from persuasion to mobilization. (Pg. 209, Kindle Locations 3308-3310)

Used VAN ID to identify voters committed to your side who needed no further persuasion but could be target to GOTV efforts.

The 2008 Obama campaign would become, in a sense, the perfect political corporation: a well-funded, data-driven, empirically rigorous institution that drew in unconventional talent ready to question some of the political industry’s standard assumptions and practices and emboldened with new tools to challenge them. (Pg. 246, Kindle Locations 3893-3895)

Simon’s team split their state goals into three different categories— new registration targets, persuasion targets, and turnout targets— and developed spreadsheets splitting each of them further into geographical and demographic subgroups. As they put the numbers into spreadsheets, it became clear that the path to victory was distinct in each state. Obama could carry Indiana only if he succeeded in persuading Republicans and independents. In Pennsylvania, he could get there just by successfully mobilizing his turnout targets. Nevada had enough new residents in the state that registering them had to be part of the formula. (Pg. 276, Kindle Locations 4372-4377).

In 2008 Obama general campaign, like the fad for small-scale urban farming, the notion of people talking to people carried an almost rebellious quaintness, a moral riposte to the tyranny of mechanized mass communication. (Pg. 278, Kindle Locations 4403-4404). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Using “shame” and social control variables to get out the vote

Gerber (of the Gerber & Green Get Out the Vote book mentioned above, did much experimental work testing assumptions) wrote four letters (20,000 letters for each condition), each with a reminder of the upcoming August 8 election and the sign-off “DO YOUR CIVIC DUTY— VOTE!”

The first message, the least provocative, was designed to gently scold. “Why do so many people fail to vote? We’ve been talking about this problem for years, but it only seems to get worse,” it said. “Your voice starts with your vote.” (Pg. 196, Kindle Locations 3104-3107).

The second message was inspired by a legendary industrial study at an Illinois factory called the Hawthorne Works, which found that worker productivity changed when the subjects knew they were under observation. “YOU ARE BEING STUDIED!” the so-called Hawthorne treatment letter warned, noting that the analysis would rely solely on public records to track why people do or do not vote and offering his reassurance: “Anything we learn about your voting or not voting will remain confidential and will not be disclosed to anyone else.”

The third message was based on the idea of “norm compliance,” a theory associated with Robert Cialdini after he used a littering experiment to demonstrate that people adjust their behaviors to match what they think their peers do. “WHO VOTES IS PUBLIC INFORMATION!” announced the letter addressed to a whole family at a single address, above a chart naming each voter in the household and whether they voted in elections held in August and November 2004. “The chart shows your name from the list of registered voters, showing past votes, as well as an empty box which we will fill in to show whether you vote in the August 8 primary election. We intend to mail you an updated chart when we have that information.”

The fourth and most incendiary letter included a similar chart, but instead of revealing a recipient’s vote history to other members of the household, Grebner found all the registered voters on the block and included theirs. “We’re sending this mailing to you and your neighbors to publicize who does and who does not vote,” the letter explained. “The chart shows the names of some of your neighbors, showing which have voted in the past. After the August 8 election, we intend to mail an updated chart. You and your neighbors will all know who voted and who did not.”

As you might imagine, this fourth letter caused outcries of invasion of privacy, Big Brother watching you, etc.

  • The control group (similar people who received no message) had voted at 29.7 percent
  • Those who received the first  “civic duty” message voted at 31.5 percent,
  • Those who received the second message, the Hawthorne treatment saying we are watching you voted at 32.2 percent
  • The third message, the “self” mailer that showed the vote of other members of their household voted at 34.5 percent.
  • Among those who received fourth message listing the neighbors voting records, 37.8 percent voted— which meant it was roughly three times more effective at increasing turnout than any other piece of mail ever tested. In effect you got 1,600 more votes out of the 20,000 letters than with those who received no messages. It was several times better to deliver a threatening letter to a nonvoter than to have a neighbor sweetly remind her of the importance of voting in the upcoming election. At one point, Gerber calculated that the neighbors mailing had increased turnout at the enviable price of two dollars per marginal vote, and began to estimate that they could have reached the entire electorate for half a million dollars— and, for instance, swung the outcome of a Republican senate primary. (Pg 199, Kindle Locations 3156-3162)

The Obama GOTV card – make a plan, tell me your going to vote HOW, etc. and other 2012 techniques based on this type of research.

The Obama campaign staffers gained and built on insights about not only political methods but also marketing and race relations, scrubbing clean a landscape that had been defined by nineteenth-century political borders and twentieth-century media institutions and redrawing it according to twenty-first-century analytics that treated every individual voter as a distinct, and meaningful, unit.


Some other external sources that you might find interesting.

The Cook Political Report: polling becoming more about persuasion – figuring out what message will hook particular voters for your candidate – increasing turnout AND winning hearts. http://cookpolitical.com/story/5233

Romney 2012 Presidential campaign had about 25 full-time data people. The Obama campaign had about 150.

Targeting Facebook Friends http://techpresident.com/news/23159/how-obama-america-made-its-facebook-friends-effective-advocates 2012 meant a big shift from fund-raising and list-building online to persuasion and mobilization online.

Huge Hispanic support for Obama was no sure thing – The Cook Report http://mobile.nationaljournal.com/columns/cook-report/huge-hispanic-support-for-obama-was-no-sure-thing-20130207

5 Ways to Hack Voters’ Brains–How science is remaking the art of political campaigns in America http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444023704577649581815655016.html

Obama campaign gives database of millions of supporters to new advocacy group http://openchannel.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/01/28/16726913-obama-campaign-gives-database-of-millions-of-supporters-to-new-advocacy-group


If you are more visually oriented, these videos may interest you while giving background.

Sasha Issenberg on CSPAN BookTV, Nov. 2012, about 10 minutes http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ML1XNBp14uI

Microtargeting in Ohio, 3 min. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wIxeFm_klQ

Obama campaign used micro-targeting during election [NBC 11-21-2012] – Morning Joe http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wx-T7Dj9hgM

The Victory Lab has little on the 2012 election cycle. Issenberg has covered the 2012 election in some detail in an article published in Dec. 2012 in The MIT Technology Review titled How President Obama’s campaign used big data to rally individual voters– (the full link is http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/509026/how-obamas-team-used-big-data-to-rally-voters/ ).