Why Obama Trusts Volunteers To Deliver His Focus-Grouped Messages

The new science of winning campaigns
Oct. 30 2012 8:39 AM

Why Obama Trusts Volunteers To Deliver His Focus-Grouped Messages

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Barack Obama calls a volunteer during an unannounced visit to a local campaign office in Orlando, Fla.

Photograph by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.

I’ve been quiet here recently, largely because I’ve been busy working on a story that went up yesterday. It brings together a few things I’ve been wrestling with throughout this election year, specifically trying to come up with a solid systems and culture explanation for why the left has such a monumental tactical advantage over the right today.

That analytical edge is probably most acutely felt in the way the two sides think about their ability to measure and model which voters are actually persuadable. For several years now, lefty campaign researchers have been aware of the limits of traditional voter targeting to answer that question, but it was a matter mostly of academic concern. Now, though, I think we’re starting to see Democrats translate those insights into practical improvements, namely the use of persuasion modeling whose value may be most immediately manifest in the way the Obama campaign has deployed volunteers this year:


Earlier this year, Obama put his volunteers’ ability to do that to the test. The campaign administered an experiment in several states in which phone-bank volunteers were given a script with a few talking points and broad instructions to open up a conversation with a potential voter. Before and after these interactions, a professional call center surveyed the targeted voters to identify which candidate they supported, and campaign analysts set to work developing a statistical portrait of those who moved in Obama’s direction after talking with a volunteer.

The result of that analysis is the campaign’s so-called persuasion model, which generates a score predicting, from zero to 10, the likelihood that a voter can be pushed in Obama’s direction. (The score also integrates a voter’s likelihood of casting a ballot altogether, so that field organizers focus the attention on those with the best chances of turning out.) A zero designates a voter likely to be repelled by the interaction, and actually pushed toward Romney or a third-party candidate; a one projects a minimal possibility of persuasion; a nine someone who can be easily pushed.

Campaign strategists have traditionally been so fearful of triggering a backlash that they rarely entrust volunteers with persuasion efforts. When placed at a phone or given a clipboard to knock on doors, volunteers usually are given tasks that do not require them to discuss sensitive or complex topics—their role has typically just been asking voters who they support, and reminding those who declare their support to turn out.

“Persuasion calls are a more difficult thing for a volunteer to do because it's a lot easier to hang up on someone than slam a door in their face,” says Wisconsin Democratic Party chairman Mike Tate. “You're not just asking someone who they're going to vote for or reminding them to vote—you're going to people who are undecided, who don't want to hear from you, and are often sick of politics.”

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It’s a big change in how campaigns think about what they can accomplish with field. When Obama’s staff brag about all those campaign offices, they’re not just thinking of them as registration and mobilization hubs but centers for targeted persuasion. Unlike most campaigns, they aren’t necessarily counting on television, direct mail and free media to do the work of changing minds.

Sasha Issenberg is the author of The Victory Lab about the new science of political campaigns.

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