Hacking the Voters’ Brains

With the U.S. presidential election less than two months away, we are exposed to more and more political coverage day by day. Sasha Issenberg (author of The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns), reporting for The Wall Street Journal, pens an interesting post about hacking the voters’ brains:

4. Get them to confess (indirectly) to bias.

Throughout 2008, Barack Obama’s advisers never entirely trusted polls that showed their candidate to be ahead. There was, after all, a long history of white voters misleading pollsters about their willingness to vote for a black candidate. The phenomenon was known as “the Bradley effect,” after Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who did far worse at the polls in his 1982 gubernatorial race than polls had predicted. Obama’s advisers didn’t want to risk such an election-night surprise and used their statistical-modeling prowess to hedge against one.

The challenge was separating voters who were resisting Obama (or remained undecided) because of his race from those who were drawn toward John McCain for other reasons. Obama’s top microtargeting consultant, Ken Strasma, focused on a small group of white voters who reported themselves to be supporting John McCain at a much higher rate than the campaign’s scores predicted they should. Mr. Strasma looked for variables that defined this group and found one when he tried a new question in his surveys: “Do you think your neighbors would be willing to vote for an African-American for president?”

People who answered “no” were likely to be Mr. Strasma’s problem voters. Everything his databases signaled about their political attitudes—based on their partisanship, age or socioeconomic status—suggested they would be likely to support Mr. Obama, but they said they planned to vote for Mr. McCain. So Mr. Strasma created a new category in his microtargeting: a so-called “openness score,” measuring the likelihood that someone was open to voting for a black candidate.

The campaign could isolate those with low scores and deal with them in one of two ways. They could be ignored or, if they looked like habitual voters who were likely to turn out, the campaign could approach them with targeted communications that focused on urgent economic themes rather than on Obama’s charisma (“hope and change”) and the historic nature of his candidacy.

5. Let them know (gently) that they are being watched. Few campaigns want to be associated with tactics like Mark Grebner’s threat to expose nonvoters to their neighbors, because it looks a lot like blackmail. But campaigns have figured out how to soften such approaches. One version widely used today tells a voter “our records indicate that you voted in the 2008 election” and says that the sender hopes to be able to thank the recipient again after this election day for his or her “good citizenship.”It may fail to meet Mr. Grebner’s goal of shaming those who don’t go to the polls, but it still works. It’s been tested.

You should read items 1 to 3 here.

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