Is there a more important question at this political moment anywhere than “Just how good is the Obama campaign’s voter research operation?” Slate.com’s Sasha Issenberg has a go at it, and his conclusion – and impressive research – should provide a little relief for Democratic nail-biters. After dispatching the Republicans voter research as antiquated, Issenberg says:
…The electioneering right is suffering from what amounts to a lost generation; they have simply failed to keep up with advances in voter targeting and communications since Bush’s re-election. The left, meanwhile, has arrived at crucial insights that have upended the conventional wisdom about how you convert citizens to your cause. Right now, only one team is on the field with the tools to most effectively find potential supporters and win their votes.
In stark contrast, Democratic research is light years ahead in analysing voter behavior, says Issenberg:
…The most important methodological and conceptual breakthroughs in recent years have originated in the academy, specifically through insights from behavioral psychology and the use of field experiments. Since 2004, myriad advocacy groups and consulting firms on the left have joined forces and launched a series of nominally for-profit private research institutions devoted to campaign tactics. The most impressive among them, the Analyst Institute, was created to link the growing supply of academics interested in running randomized-control trials to measure the efficacy of political communication with the demand of left-wing institutions eager for empirical methods to test their programs. These partnerships have birthed a generation of political professionals–many baptized in the unprecedented pools of data collected by Obama’s 2008 effort–at ease with both campaign fieldwork and the techniques of the social-science academy.
This summer, a top Republican analyst stumbled upon a job notice posted by the left-wing League of Conservation Voters. The position was Targeting and Data Director. The analyst looked admiringly at the description of the job, especially its duties to “explore and devise opportunities to test and measure the impact of all of our programs, including working closely with entities such as the Analyst Institute.” He marveled at what that language revealed about the sophistication of his rivals’ intellectual enterprise. “One thing the left–Catalist, Analyst Institute, New Organizing Institute–has done very well is training and seeding of this sort of stuff, this sort of philosophy,” said the analyst, who asked not to be identified because of election-season attachments but has worked closely with the Republican National Committee and presidential campaigns.
Dozens of such postings exist in what some call the “progressive data community.” I asked the Republican analyst what analogous jobs existed among the institutions of the right. How many of the League of Conservation Voters’ ideological foes–like the Chamber of Commerce, or their frequent allies at the National Rifle Association or the Faith and Freedom Coalition–have data managers and targeting directors with similar mandates to test and measure?
“I honestly don’t know,” the analyst replied. “If I had to guess? Zero.”
Issenberg goes on to explain how Dems have become much more adept at “persuasion microtargeting” and message testing in the field. It adds up to a qualitative advantage that Republicans are not going to match this year, or anytime soon. He concludes that Democrats can now “confidently extend their hunt for persuadable voters outside the unexpectedly perilous middle terrain and to calculate who among them will be responsive to particular messages (like on Medicare) or specific modes of contact (a call from a volunteer).”
Apparently Republicans will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century in terms of their ground game research, as well as their ideological rigidity.