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Sasha Issenberg: Political conventions don’t matter

The Victory Lab, hailed by Politico as “Moneyball for politics,” shows how cutting-edge social science and analytics are reshaping the modern political campaign.

Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab and the eBook original, Rick Perry and His Eggheads, explains why political conventions don’t matter.

And after you read Sasha’s political convention thoughts, click on the “Pay with a Tweet” button below to read a free, exclusive excerpt of Sasha’s new book, The Victory Lab. It offers iconoclastic insights into political marketing, human decision-making, and the increasing power of analytics. Hailed by Politico as “Moneyball for politics,” The Victory Lab, shows how cutting-edge social science and analytics are reshaping the modern political campaign.

To read a free, exclusive excerpt of Sasha Issenberg’s The Victory Lab, just send a tweet about it! Click the “Pay with a Tweet” button below.

 

By Sasha Issenberg

Conventions don’t matter. That has increasingly become the view of people who study elections. The week-long pageants may dominate news coverage and give party leaders and activists a chance to rally, but they don’t seem to have much impact on voters. Recent conventions have done little to change the public-opinion architecture of a race, and when they do move polls—the much sought after “bounce”—it usually proves small and ephemeral.

So if conventions, the most lavishly and attentively scripted events in American politics, don’t change whether or how people vote, what does?

That question animates all of the characters in my new book, The Victory Lab. They represent a generation of maverick operatives and academics who over the last decade have rebelled against much of the conventional wisdom about how to run for office. Newly available techniques, including field experiments—basically the campaign world’s version of pharmaceutical trials—and statistical-modeling methods known as “microtargeting,” have made it possible to isolate and refine specific tactics with minor but measurable impacts.

Campaigns started to take such unconventional research tools seriously in the wake of the close 2000 election, ultimately decided by 537 votes in Florida. Those who may have scoffed at the idea of working assiduously for minor gains suddenly appreciated what these gains could mean in another close race. The political parties found themselves quickly engaged in a behind-the-scenes battle for intellectual supremacy that Romney adviser Alex Gage calls “an information arms race.”

It was all about small things. “Many strategists had been believers that big things are all that matter in campaigns—the big events, the big TV spots, the debates, the convention, and the VP pick,” Adrian Gray, who worked in the Bush White House and on both his campaigns, told me. “After 2000, for the first time, a lot of people who shared that sentiment started to believe that there is a lot that can be done on the margins.”

In The Victory Lab, I tell the story of how that quest has played out, yielding secret insights—many of them informed by behavioral psychology—that have changed how elections are won. And you’re more likely to encounter them in the next call you get from a phone-bank volunteer, the next seemingly innocuous campaign brochure that arrives in your mailbox, or the next knock on your door from an unassuming canvasser with a clipboard, than on the floor of a party convention.

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