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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.