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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After the “Tatler Tory” bullying scandal, we must ask: what is the point of party youth wings?

A zealous desire for ideological purity, the influence of TV shows like House of Cards and a gossip mill ever-hungry for content means that the youth wings of political parties can be extremely toxic places.

If you wander around Westminster these days, it feels like you’re stepping into a particularly well-informed crèche. Everyone looks about 13; no one has ever had a job outside the party they are working for. Most of them are working for an absolute pittance, affordable only because Mummy and Daddy are happy to indulge junior’s political ambitions.

It’s this weird world of parliament being dominated by under 25s that means the Tory youth wing bullying scandal is more than just a tragic tale. If you haven’t followed it, it’s one of the most depressing stories I’ve ever read; a tale of thirty-something, emotionally-stunted nonentities throwing their weight around at kids – and a promising, bright young man has died as a result of it.

One of the most depressing things was that the stakes were so incredibly low. People inside RoadTrip 2015 (the campaigning organisation at the centre of the scandal) cultivated the idea that they were powerbrokers, that jumping on a RoadTrip bus was a vital precondition to getting a job at central office and eventually a safe seat, yet the truth was nothing of the sort.

While it’s an extreme example, I’m sure it happens in every political party all around the world – I’ve certainly seen similar spectacles in both the campus wings of the Democrats and Republicans in the US, and if Twitter is anything to go by, young Labour supporters are currently locked in a brutal battle over who is loyal to the party, and who is a crypto-Blairite who can “fuck off and join the Tories”. 

If you spend much time around these young politicians, you’ll often hear truly outrageous views, expressed with all the absolute certainty of someone who knows nothing and wants to show off how ideologically pure they are. This vein of idiocy is exactly where nightmarish incidents like the notorious “Hang Mandela” T-shirts of the 1980s come from.

When these views have the backing of an official party organisation, it becomes easy for them to become an embarrassment. Even though the shameful Mandela episode was 30 years ago and perpetrated by a tiny splinter group, it’s still waved as a bloody shirt at Tory candidates even now.

There’s also a level of weirdness and unreality around people who get obsessed with politics at about 16, where they start to view everything through an ideological lens. I remember going to a young LGBT Republican film screening of Billy Elliot, which began with an introduction about how the film was a tribute to Reagan and Thatcher’s economics, because without the mines closing, young gay men would never found themselves through dance. Well, I suppose it’s one interpretation, but it’s not what I took away from the film.

The inexperience of youth also leads to people in politics making decisions based on things they’ve watched on TV, rather than any life experience. Ask any young politician their favourite TV show, and I guarantee they’ll come back with House of Cards or The Thick of It. Like young traders who are obsessed with Wolf of Wall Street, they don’t see that all the characters in these shows are horrific grotesques, and the tactics of these shows get deployed in real life – especially when you stir in a healthy dose of immature high school social climbing.

In this democratised world of everyone having the ear of the political gossip sites that can make or break reputations, some get their taste for mudslinging early. I was shocked when a young Tory staffer told me “it’s always so upsetting when you find out it’s one of your friends who has briefed against you”. 

Anecdotes aside, the fact that the youth wings of our political parties are overrun with oddballs genuinely worries me. The RoadTrip scandal shows us where this brutal, bitchy cannibalistic atmosphere ends up.

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.