In the Washington Post this week, I write on how Barack Obama won by playing a game of political “Moneyball” — using an analytical, metrics-based approach to assemble a winning campaign, the way Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s used rigorous statistical analysis to assemble a winning baseball team.
The Obama campaign assembled an unprecedented, unified data base made up of information from pollsters, fundraisers, field workers, consumer databases, social-media and mobile contacts. They then fed that data into advanced predictive models that allowed them to target specific groups of voters with specialized messages, track how the electorate was moving as the campaign progressed, and guide the president to a second term.
Now, the New York Times reports this morning that the Obama campaign also assembled an academic “dream team” of behavioral scientists, who helped Obama officials craft their messages, respond to attacks, and motivate voters to turn out on Election Day:
The group — which calls itself the “consortium of behavioral scientists,” or COBS — provided ideas on how to counter false rumors, like one that President Obama is a Muslim. It suggested how to characterize the Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, in advertisements. It also delivered research-based advice on how to mobilize voters….
In addition to Dr. (Cragi) Fox, (a psychologist in Los Angeles), the consortium included Susan T. Fiske of Princeton University; Samuel L. Popkin of the University of California, San Diego; Robert Cialdini, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University; Richard H. Thaler, a professor of behavioral science and economics at the University of Chicago’s business school; and Michael Morris, a psychologist at Columbia.
“A kind of dream team, in my opinion,” Dr. Fox said….
At least some of the consortium’s proposals seemed to have found their way into daily operations. Campaign volunteers who knocked on doors last week in swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Nevada did not merely remind people to vote and arrange for rides to the polls. Rather, they worked from a script, using subtle motivational techniques that research has shown can prompt people to take action….
Many volunteers also asked would-be voters if they would sign an informal commitment to vote, a card with the president’s picture on it. This small, voluntary agreement amplifies the likelihood that the person will follow through, research has found….
Obama volunteers also asked people if they had a plan to vote and if not, to make one, specifying a time, according to Stephen Shaw, a retired cancer researcher who knocked on doors in Nevada and Virginia in the days before the election. “One thing we’d say is that we know that when people have a plan, voting goes more smoothly,” he said.
Recent research has shown that making even a simple plan increases the likelihood that a person will follow through, Dr. Rogers, of Harvard, said.
Another technique some volunteers said they used was to inform supporters that others in their neighborhood were planning to vote. Again, recent research shows that this kind of message is much more likely to prompt people to vote than traditional campaign literature that emphasizes the negative — that many neighbors did not vote and thus lost an opportunity to make a difference.
This kind of approach trades on a human instinct to conform to social norms, psychologists say. In another well-known experiment, Dr. Cialdini and two colleagues tested how effective different messages were in getting hotel guests to reuse towels. The message “the majority of guests reuse their towels” prompted a 29 percent increase in reuse, compared with the usual message about helping the environment. The message “the majority of guests in this room reuse their towels” resulted in a 41 percent increase, he said.
So the same social scientists who figured out how to get hotel guests to reuse their towels, helped the Obama campaign figure out how to get voters to reuse their president.
It turns out the Democrats are not only light years ahead of Republicans when it comes to harnessing the power of data to target messages – they are also light years ahead when it comes to harnessing the power of behavioral science to persuade and motivate voters.