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Victory Lab Author Speaks to Students

Campaigning experts are taking a creepy new direction to seek out voters: they want to know as much about you as possible. Sacha Issenberg, a journalist and political analyst, covered this electoral shift in his book, The Victory Lab.

The Guarini Institute featured Issenberg in their lecture series last Wednesday in Pope Hall. The event boasted a full audience of students, professors, and administrators.

As with any event pertaining to the Presidential election on November 6, the lecture produced a palpable excitement. Guarini Institute director Nick Chiaravalloti introduced Issenberg and his book as covering the “analytical and technological revolution” in the 2008 election before the expert took the stage.

Issenberg gave an overview of what his book explains at length: a recent change in campaign science, due to what he called a “new generation of geeks.” Decades ago, those seeking to court voters focused on changing the minds of those who were undecided.

However, when social field experiments were introduced to political science, campaigners were able to see, empirically, how hard is to change someone’s mind. These findings caused a shift in their strategy. Rather than driving those undecided to a choice or trying to persuade their opponent’s supporters, candidates try to mobilize those most likely to support them.

Sacha Issenberg speaks to Saint Peter’s students. Photo Credit – Dylan Smith.

As to why campaign researchers were so slow to pick up on this method, Issenberg explained, “Campaigns dissolve as corporations after 3, 6, or 18 months. They have no incentive for investing in research.”

However, not everyone thinks those in the political field are doing such a shoddy job.

“Political science didn’t drop the ball on this one,” said Professor Mirescu of the political science department, referring to the lack of research in electoral behavior. “Political science has a lot of weaknesses, but this isn’t one of them.”
Voters are still skeptical when it comes to a politician and their ethics.

“They can say whatever to get your vote,” said Junior Shakyah Williams.

When a voter registers, they give their age, gender, address, and maybe an identification of a political party. Some states will also ask for a voter’s race. Using this information, a campaigner will try to predict which candidate is more likely to get that vote. The campaigners will then begin sending the voter materials to motivate them to get to the polls on election day.

However, it’s usually hard to guess from just a few bullet points of information. “[Campaigns] are basically the only industry without market research,” said Issenberg.

In the corporate world, credit card records allow — to track consumer’s purchases. Marketing agencies can then see these records and figure out what’s selling well to which demographic. As campaigns are really just marketing corporations — “the worst companies ever,” Issenberg joked — this ability can also be used to their advantage.

“It [Issenberg’s lecture] affirmed my suspicions, but I’m not surprised,” said senior Wilmont Wilson, who was at the event. “I wouldn’t use the word surprised.”

The newest strategy, still under development, is for campaigners to seek information regarding which sites a given person visits. Once they’ve figured out who you’re more likely to vote for, that campaign will pick out ads specifically tailored to your concerns that will pop up on your computer. For example, if the campaign researchers notice that you’re going looking it applying to a university, they’ll point out to you that Romney wants to cut federal help for college students through personalized ads on the websites you’re most likely to visit.

“This marketing research is new,” said junior Stephen Kenny.“They’re taking it to a whole other level.”

As this election is one of the first to use this type of online marketing, Issenberg cited the strategy as “one of biggest mysteries [of campaigning].” No one is sure yet of the direction or the influence online targeting and marketing can have on the electoral process.


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