Seen and Heard: Sasha Issenberg on The Victory Lab

Mana Sadeghipour

Sasha Issenberg is a political analyst who has recently published The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns. Sasha is a Washington Correspondent for Monocle and a Columnist for Slate Magazine. He covered the 2008 presidential campaign as a Washington analyst and has written for the New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The Atlantic.

On Tuesday November 27, Issenberg spoke at the University of Toronto on The Victory Lab and answered questions regarding the recent political elections. Samara, which organized the event, is a Toronto-based organization founded by Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan in 2009. Samara’s main purpose is to improve civic and political participation in Canada by hosting informative events and conducting research programs that help reconnect citizens with politics.

The Victory Lab has been referred to as the “moneyball for politics” by politico and it involves discussions of the new techniques and developments that have revolutionized the campaigning process in recent decades.  The book elaborates on the concept of micro-targeting tactics and the growing significance of individual roles in the electoral process. Sasha has been at the forefront of reporting these changes and transformations in the United States political scene.  

Sasha began his talk with a discussion on his assignment in the 2008 American Presidential election. His responsibilities included staying as close as possible to the candidates as an observer and reporter of their speeches, rallies, and overall journeys. Fundamentally the general approach of the media coverage, party members, and the general public was to reduce the theme of the elections to one big factor, such as the level of charisma of a candidate or that one specific state that played a key role in determining the outcome of the entire election. However, Issenberg found that there was a significant piece of the entire electoral procedure that everyone disregarded. Hundreds of workers devote their time to figuring out the statistics and behavioral underpinnings of voter turnout, meaning the electoral results were actually based on a number of various factors and decisions.

In the past decade or so, technological advancements and database developments have led to the creation of new tools in political innovation. These advancements mainly emerged from the social scene and academics, such as political theorists and statisticians, who were concerned with political voting behavior. There was a clear need for a smarter and more efficient approach to campaigns, and after 2000, a new shift to research including more detailed voter stakes, known as ‘micro-targeting’. Variables such as household incomes and education status were taken into account when crafting campaign strategies. The goal for these procedures is to come up with data to show two things: 1) how likely you are to go and vote, and 2) how likely you are to vote for a specific candidate. This would affect decisions such as picking the right party nominee who embodies characteristics and ideas that the general public tends to look for at the given period.

Sasha went on to give numerous examples of research conducted in the past decade to improve voter turnout rates. First he gives the example of two political science professors who wanted to see if they could change voter behavior in the real world. They begin by sending out political messages to citizens through various forms of media and interactions. The people who received phone calls did not tend to change their political stance, while the ones who received personal emails and letters were slightly encouraged. Those who received in-person visits at their door were most likely to change their political opinion, signaling this method to be the most effective.

Another example Sasha shared was of a 2008 Harvard graduate student who decided that simply telling people “to go out and vote” was an ineffective approach. From his research, he concluded that people were most encouraged to participate when they received positive reports regarding their community’s voter turnout, rather than if they were given negative feedback. This opened the door to a whole new body of research and political strategies revolving around the idea of using X to get people to vote.  For example, social pressure was found to increase voter turnout by 20% through the desire to fit in. The underlying theme in this body of research is that there is something irreplaceable about social interactions in the attempt of getting citizens to cast their ballots.

The talk concluded with a Question and Answer period lead by the Toronto Star’s senior political writer Susan Delacourt, a key observer in the Canadian political scene. Sasha informed the audience that he believed the problem with modern journalism in this micro-targeting era is that journalists openly put forth the opaque and transcendent reality that they are dealing with, often stating the facts are ambiguous and unknown due to the highly sophisticated institutions that are at play. Even worse is when journalists do not acknowledge this lack of information, masking the unknown with certainty. This is an incorrect approach because journalists need respect readers enough to acknowledge how much of this information is actually within their reach.

Sasha Issenberg seems to have a relatively optimistic outlook that these new techniques are changing voter engagement for the better because campaigns have started “treating voters like people again.”

Mana Sadeghipour is a 3rd year U of T student attaining an HBA in Political Science. Mana is also the Social Media Coordinator Assistant to the Manager of Engagement at SPPG. Her previous positions include Photographer at the Soldier’s Tower and the University College Literary and Athletic Society. Her interests include photography, political theory, and nation building. She plans on entering SPPG following her undergraduate degree.

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