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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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.