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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Inside the Momentum rally: meet the Jeremy Corbyn supporters challenging Labour’s rebel MPs

The Labour leader's followers had been waiting a long time for him to come along. 

Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour Party is at stake. As the news filters through the party’s branches, hundreds of thousands sign petitions in his support. But this is no online craze. By evening, thousands of diehard fans have gathered in Parliament Square, where they shout “Ed, Ed, Ed,” to the beat of a drum. Many swear Ed was the only thing keeping them in the Labour Party. They can’t imagine supporting it without him.

Am I stretching your credibility? Even a Milifan would be hard pressed to imagine such a scene. But this is precisely Labour’s problem. Only Jeremy Corbyn can command this kind of passion.

As the Shadow Cabinet MPs began to resign on Sunday, Momentum activists sprang into action. The rally outside Parliament on Monday evening  was organised with only 24 hours notice. The organisers said 4,000 were there. It certainly felt to me like a thousand or more were crammed into the square, and it took a long time to push through to the front of the crowd. 

In contrast to the whispered corridor conversations happening across the road, the Corbyn fans were noisy. Not only did they chant Jeremy’s name, they booed any mention of the Parliamentary Labour Party and waved signs denouncing rebel MPs as “scabs”. Other posters had a whiff of the cult about them. One declared: “We love Jeremy Corbyn”. Many had the t-shirt. 

“Jeremy Corbyn brought me back into the Labour Party,” Mike Jackson, one of the t-shirt wearers, told me. He had voted Remain, but he didn’t care that the majority of the Shadow Cabinet had resigned. “He’s got a new Shadow Cabinet. It’s more diverse, there are working class voices at last, there are women, the BME community. It is exactly how it should be.” Another man simply told me: “I am here for Corbyn.”

The crowd was diverse, but in the way a university campus is diverse, not a London street or school playground. They shouted angry slogans, then moved aside obligingly for me to pass through. Jack, a young actor who did not want to give his full name, told me: “I used to vote Green. I am joining Labour because of Jeremy Corbyn. I like the guy. He listens. I have seen friends frustrated with him, but I really think he can do it.”

Syada Fatima Dastagir, a student, has supported Labour for years - “Old Labour”. She thought Corbyn would survive the coup: “I voted Green and Plaid Cymru, because I didn’t think Labour supported its roots. This has brought Labour back to its roots.”

This belief that Jezza will overcome was present everywhere in the crowd. When I asked Momentum organiser Sophie Nazemi if she thought Corbyn would go, she replied: “He won’t.”

She continued: “It is important that we demonstrate that if there is a leadership election, Jeremy will win again. It will be three months of distraction we don’t need when there is likely to be an election this year.”

Instead of turning on Corbyn, Labour should be focused on campaigning for better local housing stock and investment in post-industrial towns, she said. 

Whatever happens, she said Momentum would continue to build its grassroots organisation: “This is more than just about Jeremy, whilst Jeremy is our leader.”

As I moved off through the chanting crowds, I remembered bumping into Corbyn at an anti-austerity march just a year ago. Although he had thrown his hat into the ring for Labour leadership, he was on his own, anonymous to most of the passers by. In the year that has passed, he has become the figurehead of an unlikely cult.

Nevertheless, it was also clear from the people I spoke to that they have been waiting ages for him to come along. In other words, they chose their messiah. The PLP may try to bury him. But if these activists have their way, he’ll rise again.