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

Photo: Getty
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Mark Sampson's exit leaves the FA still trying to convince itself of its own infallibility

Football's governing body won't be able to repair the damage to its reputation in silence.

By the end, it appeared as if Mark Sampson was weathering the storm.

Despite personal reflections that the uproar and scandal that has surrounded his recent tenure as England women's football manger was taking a toll, he seemed, as of Tuesday night, firmly ensconced in the post he had held since 2013.

Player Eniola Aluko’s claims of bullying and racism against the coach – given little backing from teammates and, on balance, disregarded by consecutive enquiries – remained a persistent story, yet talk of a fresh investigation were trumped in importance by Sampson’s continued presence at training and in the dugout.

The BBC’s occasionally rabid attachment to proceedings gave the saga prolonged oxygen, but when Sampson seemed to retain the FA’s support – taking charge of the Lionesses’ 6-0 win over Russia on Tuesday night – the worst appeared to be over.

With hindsight, the vultures were simply sharpening their talons.

Sampson’s sacking – less than 24 hours after that Russia game – came after a report was unearthed detailing a historic complaint against him from his time coaching Bristol Academy – a job he left to take up the England post.

In what has long become customary, the FA received these claims nearly four years ago yet failed to act definitively – initially concluding that their new coach was “not a safeguarding risk”. However as the recent crisis depended, the full details of these initial accusations were allegedly not revealed to senior leadership.

Confirming Sampson's departure on Wednesday, FA chief executive Martin Glenn carried a pained expression reminiscent of former incumbent Mark Palios, who, in another entry in the annals of great FA crises, resigned in 2004 as a result of an affair with FA secretary Faria Alam.

Glenn will hope that his own head is not sought in the weeks ahead as his conduct throughout the Sampson saga is probed.

It also marks yet another turbulent 12 months for the beleaguered governing body, who almost exactly a year ago to the day, parted company with England men’s coach Sam Allardyce after just a single game in charge – the former Bolton and Sunderland coach getting the bullet as a result of transfer advice offered to undercover journalists.

The Allardyce departure was handled with uncharacteristic efficiency – a symptom, perhaps, of the initial scepticism behind his appointment rather than any particular reflection on his crimes.

With clear-eyed judgement, it is difficult not to have a portion of sympathy for Sampson – who, cleared by those investigations, maintained the very visible backing of his squad – right up until Wednesday’s bitter denouement.

That he’s been paid in full for the three-year contract signed last summer speaks for how soft a line the FA took on the events that forced the sacking – hoping, perhaps, for as quiet an ending as possible for both parties.

Regrettably, for the FA at least, considerable damage to their reputation will not be something they can repair in silence – not in an era where women’s football enjoys such a high profile in the national consciousness and the body continues to mark itself an easy target for criticism. 

The exact contents of those 2014 allegations and that report are sure to be known down the line – non-disclosure agreements willing – but are as of now only conjecture and innuendo.

Without details, it’s difficult to know how hard to judge Sampson. The facts of his performance on the pitch mark him out as having been an accomplished coach. That is no longer the exclusive measure of success.

Detractors will murmur darkly about there being no smoke without fire, while his supporters will point to the unique nature of the job and the often confrontational elements of its duties.

Sampson, at 34, is still a relatively young man and may be able to coach again once the rancour has subsided – although with a reputation severely bloodied, will look on the two-year salary windfall with some gratitude.

Despite Glenn’s insistence that his former manager is “clear to work” in the sport, it’s hard to envisage his career ever resuming in the women’s game.

The FA itself is again left rudderless as it tries to convince itself of its own infallibility. Flabby management structures and the perception of being an antiquated country club – valid or not – will be revisited with relish.

Perhaps positively, it could herald a more honest conversation behind what success looks like for the national game as a whole. Inclusiveness and development of a robust culture are often the first words to disappear from the vocabulary once on field results start to falter.  

For once, the identity of the next coach is not the urgent dilemma facing the FA.

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