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The tug-of-war between the geeks and the gurus.

  • Sep 15, 2012
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My, how times have changed! In years gone by political campaigns hoped to drum up support utilizing the traditional methods of radio and television ads, direct mail and polling. This was the approach favored by those whom author Sasha Issenberg dubs "the gurus". According to Issenberg "the gurus were the celebrated political wise men whose practices had become the political default, thanks to their success serving up a cocktail of lore and myth, anecdote and inertia that could so thoroughly intoxicate the candidates who paid their bills." But in the view of a growing number of political scientists these methods were rapidly becoming outdated due to the advent of an array of exciting new technologies. All of a sudden it was possible to identify "undecided" voters who might be sympathetic to your candidate and to "nudge" non-voters as well. These innovative new get-out-the vote (GOTV)strategies being championed by the so-called "geeks" who worked quietly behind the scenes would pose a direct threat to the entrenched and high-profile political consultants. This ongoing battle between the "geeks" and the "gurus" is the story Sasha Issenberg tells in "The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns". I had very high hopes for this book when I plucked it off the Amazon Vine. But for reasons that I will discuss shortly I came away a bit disappointed.

Perhaps the most important lesson that campaigns have learned from the political scientists is that finding small, refined batches of voters really matters. This is a strategy that is very cost effective and runs counter to the traditional radio and television buys and newspaper ads favored by the consultants. Making this a part of the overall game plan proved to be one of the keys to the success of Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. I learned that it is now possible to create mailings aimed at small clusters of voters that have been "micro-targeted" by the campaign. Researchers have discovered that targeted mailings with themes emphasizing civic duty, community solidarity and touting the idea that "your vote could make the difference" can be surprisingly effective. Likewise ongoing research has uncovered the fact that personal contact with the voter in the days leading up to an election can yield impressive results in increasing turnout for your candidate or cause. Sasha Issenberg chronicles how several of these campaign tactics turned the tide in favor of the Democrats in a pair of key U.S. Senate races in 2010. Issenberg also introduces his readers to a number of the key players who were responsible for formulating these innovative and highly successful techniques.

While the subject matter is indeed quite interesting I have a couple of major problems with "The Victory Lab". First and foremost I believe that this book is much too long. In my view Sasha Issenberg could have effectively made his case in about 50-75 fewer pages. Frankly, I began to lose interest about two-thirds of the way through the book. In addition the author's frequent use of insider jargon proved to be a real obstacle for me. It appears that the target audience for "The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns" are those in academia, political operatives and bloggers who are deeply immersed in this stuff. This is not a particularly easy read for general audiences. In my view this was a good idea for a book that just misses the mark. As such I am only able to muster a lukewarm recommendation.

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Paul Tognetti ()
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I guess I would qualify as a frustrated writer. My work requires very little writing and so since 1999 I have been writing reviews on non-fiction books and anthology CD's on amazon.com. I never could … more
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The book Politico calls “Moneyball for politics” shows how cutting-edge social science and analytics are reshaping the modern political campaign.

Renegade thinkers are crashing the gates of a venerable American institution, shoving aside its so-called wise men and replacing them with a radical new data-driven order. We’ve seen it in sports, and now in The Victory Lab, journalist Sasha Issenberg tells the hidden story of the analytical revolution upending the way political campaigns are run in the 21st century.
     The Victory Lab follows the academics and maverick operatives rocking the war room and re-engineering a high-stakes industry previously run on little more than gut instinct and outdated assumptions. Armed with research from behavioural psychology and randomized experiments that treat voters as unwitting guinea pigs, the smartest campaigns now believe they know who you will vote for even before you do.  Issenberg tracks these fascinating techniques—which include cutting edge persuasion experiments, innovative ways to mobilize voters, heavily researched electioneering methods—and shows how our most important figures, such as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, are putting them to use with surprising skill and alacrity.
     Provocative, clear-eyed and energetically reported, The Victory Lab offers iconoclastic insights into political marketing, human decision-making, and the increasing power of ...

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