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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How the Obama Campaign Leverages ‘E.I.P.’s’

Sasha Issenberg’s Slate.com post, “The Death of the Hunch,” provides a revealing look at the wonky side of campaign strategy, specifically “experiment-informed programs” to gauge the effects of messaging on different constituencies. As Issenberg, author of the forthcoming “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns,” explains,

…The strategy was put into play even before Romney emerged as the Republican nominee. There was the late-November advertising run on satellite systems that the campaign called “tiny,” and then silence until a brief January broadcast-buy across six states focusing on energy, ethics, and the Koch brothers. An isolated flight of brochures about health-care legislation hit mailboxes in March, timed to Supreme Court arguments on the subject. In voluminous (if not easily audited by outsiders) online ads and targeted email blasts, the campaign has addressed seemingly every topic or theme imaginable: taxes paid by oil companies, the “war on women,” and a variety of local issues of interest in battleground states.
If these forays seem random, it’s because at least some of them almost certainly are. To those familiar with the campaign’s operations, such irregular efforts at paid communication are indicators of an experimental revolution underway at Obama’s Chicago headquarters. They reflect a commitment to using randomized trials, the result of a flowering partnership between Obama’s team and the Analyst Institute, a secret society of Democratic researchers committed to the practice, according to several people with knowledge of the arrangement. (Through a spokeswoman, Analyst Institute officials declined to comment on the group’s work with Obama and referred all questions to the campaign’s press office, which did not respond to an inquiry on the subject.)
The Obama campaign’s “experiment-informed programs”–known as EIP in the lefty tactical circles where they’ve become the vogue in recent years–are designed to track the impact of campaign messages as voters process them in the real world, instead of relying solely on artificial environments like focus groups and surveys. The method combines the two most exciting developments in electioneering practice over the last decade: the use of randomized, controlled experiments able to isolate cause and effect in political activity and the microtargeting statistical models that can calculate the probability a voter will hold a particular view based on hundreds of variables.

Issenberg goes on to explain how the ‘E.I.P.’ process is conducted, painting a provocative picture of what is likely the most intensely data-driven presidential campaign ever. (for another interesting article on the topic, see Issenberg’s earlier New York Times article, “Nudge the Vote.”) And, if President Obama wins in November, a share of the credit may go to the rigorous empirical grounding of his message strategists.

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