Out with the guru, in with the geek

What can the UK learn from US politics' number-crunching and precision-targeted campaigning?

Wherever Barack Obama’s target voters were, his campaign team knew how to reach them. It knew which magazines they read and even which bus routes they travelled on. The precision-guided adverts that it placed helped propel Obama to victory against Mitt Romney in battleground states.

The US president’s 2012 campaign was the fullest expression yet of what the American journalist Sasha Issenberg calls a “scientific revolution” in the way elections are fought. In his book The Victory Lab: the Secret Science of Winning Campaigns (Crown Publishing) he describes how the hitherto unimaginable quantities of data assembled by US political parties have enabled them to “micro-target” voters with ever greater sophistication. The “gurus” who rely on hunches are being supplanted by the “geeks” who rely on numbers. Already required reading inside the Beltway (the US website Politico described it as “Moneyball for politics”), the book is now attracting attention in Westminster as all parties search for the elixirs that will deliver victory in 2015.

When I spoke to Issenberg, who is part of a new cadre of stats-savvy US journalists, he told me that the tipping point came in 2004, when: “People in politics realised that the corporate world knows a lot more about consumers than they do about voters.” By acquiring data on people’s shopping and viewing habits and matching it up with their existing canvassing records, parties “were able to develop new statistical models and to look for patterns in the hundreds, sometimes thousands, of individual data points that resulted”. It was after Obama’s number-crunchers discovered that swing-voter households containing teenagers were more likely to support him that the campaign decided to buy ad space in video games. George Clooney and Sarah Jessica Parker were invited to host fundraisers after they were found to have the strongest influence on 40-to-49-year-old women, the demographic group most likely to donate.

As well as harvesting data, the parties are performing what Issenberg describes as “political versions of drug trials”, in which a new campaigning technique is tried on one group of voters while a control group is left untouched. Before a Michigan primary in 2006, the political consultant Mark Grebner sent citizens a copy of their voting history (already publicly available), along with their neighbours’, and informed them that an updated set would be sent to all residents after the election. Turnout increased by 20 per cent among those who received the message.

The words “creepy” and “scary” are the most common responses to such techniques, but Issenberg argues that they are evidence of a fuller, healthier democracy. “These types of nudges work because they make voting meaningful to people and one way they make it meaningful is by appealing to someone’s desire to fit in or not be shamed.”

Rather than relying on crude stereotypes such as “Worcester Woman” and “Mondeo Man”, data-mining allows campaigns to treat voters as individuals. By the 2016 presidential election, if you visit an environmental campaign website you will see an advert on the Democrats’ climate change policy; visit a jobs site and you’ll receive one on their employment policy. In the new era of big data, where the voter leads, the party will always follow.

 

People walk past a poster of Barack Obama. Photograph: Getty Images

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God

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For 19 minutes, I thought I had won the lottery

The agonising minutes spent figuring out my mistake paired beautifully with hard, low wisdom tooth throbs.

Nineteen minutes ago, I was a millionaire. In my head, I’d bought a house and grillz that say “I’m fine now thanks”, in diamonds. I’d had my wisdom tooth (which I’ve been waiting months for the NHS to pull the hell out of my skull) removed privately. Drunk on sudden wealth, I’d considered emailing everyone who’s ever wronged me a picture of my arse. There I was, a rich woman wondering how to take a butt selfie. Life was magnificent.

Now I’m lying face-down on my bed. I’m wearing a grease-stained t-shirt and my room smells of cheese. I hear a “grrrrk” as my cat jumps onto the bed. He walks around on my back for a bit, then settles down, reinstating my place in the food chain: sub-cat. My phone rings. I fumble around for it with all the zeal of a slug with ME. Limply, I hold it to my ear.

“Hi,” I say.

“You haven’t won anything, have you” says my dad. It isn’t a question.

“I have not.”

“Ah. Never mind then eh?”

I make a sound that’s just pained vowels. It isn’t a groan. A groan is too human. This is pure animal.

“What? Stop mumbling, I can’t hear you.”

“I’m lying on my face,” I mumble.

“Well sit up then.”

“Can’t. The cat’s on my back.”

In my defence, the National Lottery website is confusing. Plus, I play the lottery once a year max. The chain of events which led me to believe, for nineteen otherworldly minutes, that I’d won £1 million in the EuroMillions can only be described as a Kafkaesque loop of ineptitude. It is both difficult and boring to explain. I bought a EuroMillions ticket, online, on a whim. Yeah, I suffer from whims. While checking the results, I took a couple of wrong turns that led me to a page that said, “you have winning matches in one draw”. Apparently something called a “millionaire maker code” had just won me a million quid.

A

Million

Quid.

I stared at the words and numbers for a solid minute. The lingering odour of the cheese omelette I’d just eaten was, all of a sudden, so much less tragic. I once slammed a finger in a door, and the pain was so intense that I nearly passed out. This, right now, was a fun version of that finger-in-door light-headedness. It was like being punched by good. Sure, there was a level on which I knew I’d made a mistake; that this could not be. People don’t just win £1 million. Well they do, but I don’t. It’s the sort of thing that happens to people called Pauline, from Wrexham. I am not Pauline from Wrexham. God I wish I was Pauline from Wrexham.

Even so, I started spending money in my head. Suddenly, London property was affordable. It’s incredible how quickly you can shrug off everyone else’s housing crisis woe, when you think you have £1m. No wonder rich people vote Conservative. I was imaginary rich for nineteen minutes (I know it was nineteen minutes because the National Lottery website kindly times how much of your life you’ve wasted on it) and turned at least 40 per cent evil.

But, in need of a second opinion on whether or not I was – evil or not - rich, I phoned my dad.

“This is going to sound weird,” I said, “but I think I’ve won £1 million.”

“You haven’t won £1 million,” he said. There was a decided lack of anything resembling excitement in his voice. It was like speaking to an accountant tired of explaining pyramid schemes to financial Don Quixotes.

“No!” I said, “I entered the EuroMillions and I checked my results and this thing has come up saying I’ve won something but it’s really confusing and…”

Saying it out loud (and my how articulately) clinched it: my enemies were not going to be looking at butt selfies any time soon. The agonising minutes spent figuring out my mistake paired beautifully with hard, low wisdom tooth throbs.

“Call me back in a few minutes,” I told my dad, halfway though the world’s saddest equation.

Now here I am, below a cat, trying to explain my stupidity and failing, due to stupidity.  

 

“If it’s any consolation,” my dad says, “I thought about it, and I’m pretty sure winning the lottery would’ve ruined your life.”

“No,” I say, cheese omelette-scented breath warming my face, “it would’ve made my life insanely good.”

I feel the cat purr. I can relate. For nineteen minutes, I was happy too. 

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.