Why Obama and Romney Know How You'll Vote Before You Do

Thanks to sophisticated data experiments, political campaigns can predict how voters will cast their ballot.

Voters across the country waited in line to participate in Democratic primaries.
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Political consultants think they know who you will vote for before you even know yourself. That's because behavioral psychology, data mining, and sophisticated experiments are giving campaigns more information about voters than ever before, allowing them to tailor messages to target specific sections of the electorate. In The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, Sasha Issenberg, a journalist for Slate, Monocle, and others, follows the operatives and academics who are revolutionizing how campaigns are run in the United States. He recently spoke with U.S. News about how presidential campaigns are employing these techniques and what the two candidates can do to win. Excerpts:

Is it really possible to predict who is going to win a political contest?

I don't know if it's possible to predict who's going to win. What campaigns think they can do is predict how each individual voter in the United States will vote. And so what they've done is collected lots of data on individual voters—sometimes thousands of individual data points—and they use these statistical algorithms to come up with a prediction: if you're going to go out and cast a ballot in November, how you're going to vote, what issues you're going to care about. They're starting to make tactical and strategic decisions, not thinking about the sort of big categories that we see in polls, but thinking about lots of individual people and how to build them up to a winning number.

[Check Out U.S. News Digital Weekly, An Insider's Guide to Politics and Policy.]

Do you see any major differences in the way the 2012 election is being run, as opposed to 2008?

I think campaigns are going to have a far better ability of matching up what they know about your off-line political identity and your online presence. Whereas in the past campaigns usually just used the Internet to raise money or enlist volunteers, they wouldn't use it to try to persuade voters or try to mobilize their supporters because they didn't know who they were talking to and the risk of mobilizing the wrong people or generating a backlash was too high. They're finally able to link the data about who you are off-line and who you are when they find you online.

What will surprise people the most about your book?

Probably the extent to which every interaction they're having with campaigns is being shaped in some way or another by really sophisticated research. The scripts that volunteers use when they're calling you from a phone bank or canvassers use when they knock on your door have been shaped in many cases by dozens or hundreds of serious scientific field experiments. Many of them are formed by research from the behavioral sciences. I think a lot of the interactions that we write off casually are now being shaped by sophisticated understanding of the human brain.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

What role do the media have in the way that campaigns are run?

I think there's a big role to be played by the media. I don't think we're doing a particularly good job of playing it recently. I think we continue to write about campaigns the same way we did in 1988. We still focus on the same things: the speeches, the rallies, the ads. I don't think we're necessarily writing about everything campaigns do, and I think on most days we're missing the most important things that are going on in the campaigns we cover.

What is one thing the Obama team is doing right in this campaign?

They're using experiments to test the effectiveness of individual messages. They're not just relying on focus groups or polls to ask voters what might make them move in the future, but are actually using experiments to randomly assign messages by mail or targeted web ads to voters, and then measuring who moves in response to them.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

What is one thing Mitt Romney is doing right in this campaign?

Romney's been a pioneer in using political data from the beginning. In his 2002 campaign for governor he was the first candidate to use what we call microtargeting now—combining the data that was available in commercial databases with basic political information on voters. I think Romney and his circle were then probably much more open to adapting techniques that were used in the corporate world because he had a background there.