How ‘The Victory Lab’ Made Me Smarter About Election Season

by Kim on November 4, 2012 · 9 comments

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Happy Sunday, everyone! Today I want to spend some time writing about a funny way in which a book about politics has made me think about an otherwise small instance in my everyday life.

As we all clearly know, there’s a battle going on in politics right now. But, it’s not necessarily for the hearts and minds of voters — it’s a fight between proponents of mass media and experts in microtargeting, each trying to prove they know the best way to engage and persuade voters. In The Victory Lab, journalist Sasha Issenberg offers a history of how social scientists and political pollsters have developed new ways to target persuadable voters and try to win them to their side.

I read The Victory Labback in September when I was going through a political books phase. However, I put off writing anything about it long enough that my election excitement turned into election exhaustion and I didn’t want to think about the book anymore, despite the fact that it was really very good. Admittedly, The Victory Lab is a little on the dry side for even the most hard-core political junkie — it’s hard to make political polling and microtargeting sexy — but Issenberg gives it a pretty decent shot by profiling the people who have helped develop the data-driven methods that have been used recent political campaigns.

This week I was reminded about the book because of a political mailer the boyfriend received. The front, decorated with photos of smiling children, congratulated him on receiving his first Voter Report Card. It went on to say,

Who you vote for is your secret. But whether you vote is public record.

The Voter Report Card on the back shows your voting attendance record. It’s designed to help you keep track of how you’re doing.

All citizens should have a voice in their government. Our democracy works best when everyone is a voter – including you.

That’s why we’ve selected you for this important research project. In the future, we hope to send you an updated Voter Report Card before each election. …

As a voter this year, you’ll be joined by many millions of fellow citizens. Many contests, though, will be so close that just a tiny number of votes will determine the outcome.

One of those crucial votes could be yours – but only if you’re a voter.

On the back, it gives some specifics for the boyfriend – how many times he has voted in the last five general elections (giving him an “Excellent!” rating), and how that compares to other people in our neighborhood. Now, I am a little suspicious of the data they’re using for this; it says the results are based on public record for our current address… but we’ve only lived here for a couple months.

Despite that, the mailer is interesting to me because it took be back to one of my favorite chapters from The Victory Lab, when Issenberg explores research in “want-should” behavior – how people struggle with competing goals, the things they should do versus the things they want to do. This extends to research on how to promote behaviors based on positive or negative cues (whether, for example, hotel guests would reuse more towels when they’re told how many other hotel guests do it or told how low recycling rates are).

Researchers eventually turned this lens to voting behavior, trying to figure out which messages are more likely to persuade voters to go to the polls (voters know they should vote, but how do you compete with all of the things that result in people avoiding the polls?). In a series of experiments, researchers sent out “voting report cards” to voters in a particular area that revealed citizens voting history to their families and neighbors and that, with various types of messages, tried to appeal to voters’ sense of civic responsibility (or guilt) to make them vote – exactly the type of card the boyfriend just received.

So now I’m really curious about this mailer. What research is it a part of? Who is organizing it? Did they really get his voting history (if so, how?), or is the information they provided just a guess about what he may have done? Why did he get one, but not me?

I don’t know these answers, obviously (and I doubt asking them was the point of the mailer) but I am really glad to have read The Victory Lab because of the context it’s given me for this election season. I don’t know all of the ways campaigns are microtargeting me or the boyfriend or my friends and family, but I do know a little bit more about one tactic and what it’s trying to do that I wouldn’t have understood before.

I admit to being a self-plagiarist: Part of this post originally appeared on Book Riot as part of a round-up of books that get inside politics. 

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