Politics and Public Opinion, Elections

Obama’s ‘Moneyball’ campaign and its ‘dream team’ of behavioral scientists

Image credit: Veni Markovski (Flickr) (CC BY 2.0)

Image credit: Veni Markovski (Flickr) (CC BY 2.0)

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.

9 thoughts on “Obama’s ‘Moneyball’ campaign and its ‘dream team’ of behavioral scientists

  1. the difference is that Obama had a base that he could further mine to increase turnout but the GOP basically only has one demographic in their base and not a whole lot more to “mine”.

    This should not have been rocket science for the GOP.

    The polls were showing non-white demographics and women in increasing numbers but the GOP then chose to view these indications as a Poll “conspiracy” …

    when you are this dumb and self-delusional, you deserve to lose.

    Newt Gingrich is saying “we need to figure out what happened” like he just got run over by a bus and thinks the tag number he missed is what is relevant.. not the bus.

  2. This is an example of one of the several stages of denial that AEI “fellows” are going through.

    The “fellows” will convince themselves that the American people could not have POSSIBLY re-elected the President on merits alone, so they come up with this.

    Running a well managed campaign is necessary to win. So is money. But so do issues.

    Mr. Thiessen, is, quite characteristically, mired in Roveland.

    • the most amazing thing was not that some of the GOP folks were arguing different turn-out models against other GOP looking at alternative measurements.


      The whole DANG community was so hyped on their own beliefs that they chose the only path that supported their beliefs.

      Now these are folks who say they know how to run the country – but they not only rely on bogus data – they do it in lock-step … as an entire Party – movement.

      We need people who think like this in charge of the country like we need a hole in the head.

  3. According to The Hill, Paul Ryan is now claiming he didn’t lose on the budget or Medicare- he just didn’t expect such a high urban turnout, as if those people weren’t American voters.

    • re: ” such a high urban turnout”

      you mean all the efforts the GOP made at suppressing the vote – Ryan did not notice?

      listening to these guys weave their “plausible” stories and just simply deny things they don’t want to believe makes me wonder what they would have done if they had gotten elected.

      there is something going on with these guys – and it’s not a good thing… the word “lying” is no longer in their vocabulary. They’ve become an extension of FAUX news.

  4. Whatever:
    Looking back at the “election”, it just occurred to me that o’bama HAD TO WIN. Why? Because the Elite NEED to control the country. They OWN o’bama because he’s a FRAUD, they “have the goods on him” and he knows that if he doesn’t cooperate they’ll let those good go public. romney didn’t have enough “bad stuff” on him to be blackmailed into cooperation.
    But why would o’bama deal with the Elite, knowing that they think they OWN him? He’s ARROGANT! He thinks he’s the Messiah and has it all under control. He has folks such as Soros “behind” him.
    Then, why did THEY CHOOSE romney to be the “opponent”? Well, romney is just a o’bama-light. Romney is a RINO. They hardly disagreed on much. Since they didn’t disagree on much, or maybe I ought to say that they both were disinterested in the right things, they wouldn’t discuss them in the “debates” so the lemmings wouldn’t be provoked to actually THINK!

  5. Let us stop this nonsense. Getting ‘better people’ to run the campaign will make no difference as long as the GOP picks amoral (or immoral) men without principles as their candidates. The best thing that Obama had going for him was Romney. It is as simple as that.

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