The Victory Lab:
The Secret Science
of Winning Campaigns
By Sasha Issenberg
Crown, 368 pages
Matthew Dowd was in Austin when he had a revelation. It was the winter of 2001. Dowd, an adviser to George W. Bush, was studying the 2000 election. Most pro-Bush “independents,” Dowd noticed, had voted for every Republican on their ballots. Ticket-splitters made up only 7 percent of the 2000 electorate. If Bush wanted to win reelection, Dowd realized, he could no longer rely on television advertising to appeal to swing voters. The swing vote was minuscule. He needed to focus instead on identifying his partisans and bringing them to the polls.
This was easier said than done. The Bush team found that more than three-quarters of the voters leaning Republican lived in places earlier campaigns had ignored. They found that television ads brought diminishing returns since couch potatoes tended to be Democrats. The Republican base, they concluded, was a lost continent. It needed to be rediscovered. Market research provided a map.
The Victory Lab tells the story of how the Bush campaign used so-called lifestyle targeting to win in 2004—and how the Obama campaign expanded this technique to build a technological and organizing juggernaut four years later. Unfortunately, that story is buried under page after laborious page of political science. The reader is exhausted by the time he gets to the rich meat.
So the best way to read this book is to turn to the chapter on the Obama campaign that begins on page 243, “Models and the Matrix,” and then put The Victory Lab aside for a used copy of Applebee’s America, which Matthew Dowd co-wrote with Democratic pollster Doug Sosnik and political writer Ron Fournier in 2006. It tells the story of campaign targeting in a clear and concise and authoritative manner.
Look at the way the two books deal with Alex Gage. He’s the Republican consultant who did pioneering work in lifestyle targeting. His 157-page, 2003 report, “Michigan MicroTactics: The Party Model,” served as an instruction manual for the 2004 Bush campaign. Gage broke down “micro-tactics” into simple steps: Obtain the Republican National Committee’s list of Michigan’s registered voters. Send the list to a data-mining firm to hunt for consumer histories for those voters—where they live, what cars they drive, what movies and television shows they watch, what books they read, where they shop for groceries, what cellphone plan they use. Poll the list’s politics. Run the answers through a computer algorithm that sorts the voters into groups based on their consumer habits. Look for the groups most likely to respond to your candidate’s pitch. Target your message and outreach to those voters. Repeat for every swing state.
The Bush campaign tested this system in Pennsylvania in the spring of 2003. The data predicted voter preferences with great certainty. Karl Rove was an initial skeptic, but he approved the plan when he saw that lifestyle targeting could reach six times as many potential voters as traditional methods. Before long Bush was advertising on health-club television networks and during episodes of Will and Grace. These were places that had been foreign territory for GOP campaigns, but they were now essential ground.
“If you’re a voter living in one of the 16 states that determined the 2004 election,” wrote the authors of Applebee’s America, “the Bush team had your name on a spreadsheet with your hobbies and habits, vices and virtues, favorite foods, sports, and vacation venues, and many other facts of your life.” Such information provided clues to motivating the voters who gave Bush close victories in states such as Iowa, where he won by some 10,000 votes, and New Mexico, where he won by 6,000. It’s in close elections such as these that so-called campaign effects—voter identification, contact, and mobilization—matter most.
Applebee’s America runs through Gage’s findings in pithy and jargon-free language. But Gage gets lost in the crowded recesses of The Victory Lab. There are more social scientists and consultants here than at a meeting of the American Political Science Association. Hal Malchow, Mark Grebner, Heather Smith, Todd Rogers, Mark Mellman, Andy Bechhoefer, Bob Shrum, Dick Morris, Harold Gosnell, Harry Pratt Judson, Charles E. Merriam, A.N. Holcombe, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Dr. Beardsley Ruml, George Catlin, Phillips Bradley, Samuel Eldersveld, Angus Campbell, Clyde Hart, Philip Converse, Donald Stokes, V.O. Key, Warren Miller, Bob Teeter, Fred Steeper (or was it Bob Steeper and Fred Teeter?), Samuel Popkin, Pat Caddell, Amos Tversky, Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler, Paul Begala, James Carville—they all appear within the book’s first 35 pages. The next 333 pages are no different.
The book reads like a reportorial notebook dump. Every last fact is packed into narrow margins. The narrative thread is obscured. That’s a shame, because what happened to lifestyle targeting after 2004 is intriguing. Not only is technology value-neutral, it’s also bipartisan. Republicans did not have a patent on micro-tactics. On the contrary: Democrats were using similar techniques less than a year into Bush’s second term, when Tim Kaine won the Virginia governor’s mansion.
By 2008, technology had advanced to the point where Democratic supercomputers churned through data on 100 million Americans. The Obama campaign married lifestyle targeting to online community building. Its data were housed in “the Matrix”: a vast “repository,” Issenberg writes, “that would gather every instance of the campaign ‘touching’ a voter, as field operatives like to put it, including each piece of mail, doorstep visit, and phone call, whether from a volunteer or a paid phone bank.”
Campaign operatives learned through the matrix that riding mass transit made one likely to support Obama. The campaign quickly bought advertising on the bus routes used by likely supporters. Soon Obama’s visage appeared in between posters for divorce lawyers and Lasik eye surgery. As the Obama adviser Larry Grisolano told Issenberg, “If I know that there are 27 people I want to reach and they all cluster around this bus bench, I’ll buy that bus bench. And if I know these 27 people read the PennySaver, I’ll buy an ad in the PennySaver.” Judging by Obama’s victory margins, there are a lot of coupon shoppers.
The larger problem with The Victory Lab is its romance with the $6-billion-a-year political-consulting industry. According to the consultant fallacy, it was fantastic technology and sophisticated voter contact that won Barack Obama the largest Democratic vote share since 1964. And perhaps micro-targeting did play a role in Obama’s victories in North Carolina (14,000 votes) and Indiana (19,000 votes). But the more persuasive explanation is that Obama won in 2008 because of a spike in black turnout and support, and because two unpopular wars, an economy in recession, and a financial crisis lowered the incumbent Republican president’s approval rating to 25 percent.
No amount of money, technology, and consulting can save an out-of-step and inauthentic candidate. Micro-tactics cannot change economic and social conditions. “Tactics do not win elections,” Dowd wrote in Applebee’s America. “Values do.”