Twilight for the campaign pros? The rise of the political quants

By Robert Mann

After laboring in obscurity for years, it’s time for the political quants to bask in the spotlight of public and media acclaim.  According to just about every political observer, a shadowy team of data crunchers and computer wizards was largely responsible for President Obama’s re-election.

Observed Michael Scherer in a Time story:

Exactly what that team of dozens of data crunchers was doing, however, was a closely held secret. “They are our nuclear codes,” [Obama] campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt would say when asked about the efforts. Around the office, data-mining experiments were given mysterious code names such as Narwhal and Dreamcatcher. The team even worked at a remove from the rest of the campaign staff, setting up shop in a windowless room at the north end of the vast headquarters office. The “scientists” created regular briefings on their work for the President and top aides in the White House’s Roosevelt Room, but public details were in short supply as the campaign guarded what it believed to be its biggest institutional advantage over Mitt Romney’s campaign: its data.

In a New York Times story, a Princeton University scholar, Zeynep Tufekci, wrote:

How did Mr. Obama win? The message and the candidate matter, of course; it’s easier to persuade voters if your policies are more popular and your candidate more appealing. But a modern winning campaign requires more. As [Obama’s campaign manager] Mr. [Jim] Messina explained, his campaign made an “unparalleled” $100 million investment in technology, demanded “data on everything,” “measured everything” and ran 66,000 computer simulations every day. In contrast, Mitt Romney’s campaign’s data operations were lagging, buggy and nowhere as sophisticated. A senior Romney aide described the shock he experienced in seeing the Obama campaign turn out “voters they never even knew existed.” And that kind of ability matters: while Mr. Obama did win decisively, the size of his lead in four states that determined the outcome, Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Colorado, was about 400,000 votes — or about 1.2 percent of the eligible voters.

The Victory Lab

The quants even rated their own book, The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, a deft and fascinating portrayal of the quants and data wizards by journalist Sasha Issenberg. In a piece in Slate in early November, Issenberg described the remarkable lengths to which the Obama campaign went to identify and classify potential voters.

Over a two-week stretch starting at the end of July, the Obama campaign’s analytics department contacted 54,739 voters from paid call centers and asked them how they planned to vote. Obama’s databases already knew a lot about the approximately 180 million registered voters in the United States (and even a bit about those who weren’t registered, in a way that could help guide the campaign’s efforts to enroll them). The goal was to collect intelligence about potential voters’ 2012 intentions and distill that down to a series of individual-level predictions. The most important of these scores, on a range from 0 to 100, assessed an individual’s likelihood of supporting Barack Obama and of casting a ballot altogether. . . .

The Obama campaign’s algorithms ran the numbers and predicted the likelihood that every voter in the country would cast a ballot, assigning each a turnout score. Obama’s analysts knew how good their support score was because they polled a new group of voters to validate it: 87 percent of the time it would accurately predict an individual’s preference. But it would be impossible to confirm their algorithm’s turnout predictions until after the election. But they did their best to assess its accuracy, by calling voters and asking them how likely they are to vote. Analysts know that people are poor predictors of their future behavior, but they got answers that confirmed that their rankings were at least sensible.

All of this has led to the conclusion by many that campaigning has fundamentally changed. Sophisticated polling, voter profiling and computer modeling have turned politics into the very science the political scientists always told us it was.  Voter behavior really can, indeed, be predicted. Discrete demographic groups can be targeted with laser-like precision. Using experiments, political scientists believe they can now tell the politicians exactly what message will produce a desired response.

Implicit in this rise of political quants is the eclipse of the traditional political expert. The campaign manager with 20 statewide contests under his belt, who has seen it all and can give you five reasons why that ad just won’t move voters in Des Moines. The media consultant with a brilliant idea — based on years of experience producing spots — that perfectly captures the voters’ imagination or stokes their fears. The candidate who hones her message, not with polls and experiments, but by road testing her lines in hundreds of coffees and town hall meetings in small towns in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Writing in Time about the rise of the quants in politics, Michael Scherer recently observed, “It’s another sign that the role of the campaign pros of Washington who make decisions on hunches and experience is rapidly dwindling, being replaced by the work of quants and computer coders who can crack massive data sets for insight. . . In politics, the era of big data has arrived.”


But we’ve actually seen this story before in an earlier era.

The Advent of Science in Advertising

In 1957, in his bestselling book, The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard revealed the research tools that advertisers were employing to discover the habits and desires of consumers. “Large-scale efforts are being made to channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions, and our thought processes,” he warned, adding that scientists were equipping advertisers with “awesome tools” that were used to manipulate and influence “the patterns of our everyday lives.”

As Packard explained, his book attempted

to explore a strange and rather exotic new area of American life. It is about the large-scale efforts being made, often with impressive success, to channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions, and our thought processes by the use of insights gleaned from psychiatry and the social sciences. Typically these efforts take place beneath our level of awareness; so that the appeals which move us are often, in a sense, “hidden.” The result is that many of us are being influenced and manipulated, far more than we realize, in the patterns of our everyday lives.

Some of the manipulating being attempted is simply amusing. Some of it is disquieting, particularly when viewed as a portent of what may be ahead on a more intensive and effective scale for us all. Co-operative scientists have come along providentially to furnish some awesome tools.

The use of mass psychoanalysis to guide campaigns of persuasion has become the basis of a multimillion-dollar industry. Professional persuaders have seized upon it in their groping for more effective ways to sell us their wares — whether products, ideas, attitudes, candidates, goals, or states of mind. . . .

What the probers are looking for, of course, are the whys of our behavior, so that they can more effectively manipulate our habits and choices in their favor. This has led them to probe why we are afraid of banks; why we love those big fat cars; why we really buy homes; why men smoke cigars; why the kind of car we drive reveals the brand of gasoline we will buy; why housewives typically fall into a hypnoidal trance when they get into a supermarket; why men are drawn into auto showrooms by convertibles but end up buying sedans; why junior loves cereal that pops, snaps, and crackles.

But the developments that Packard “revealed” were not as mysterious and hidden as he supposed.

In 1923, advertising pioneer Claude C. Hopkins published a book, Scientific Advertising, in which he spelled out a series of principles for advertising, including his belief that truly effective ads were the result of “repeated tests. This is done through keyed advertising, by trace returns, largely by the use of coupons. We compare one way with many others, backward and forward, and record the results.” (This, of course, is almost the exact methods that the Obama campaign and others have used to find the most effective email fundraising appeals.)

Explaining his belief in testing, Hopkins wrote:

Suppose a chemist would say in an arbitrary way that this compound was best, or that better. You would little respect his opinion. He makes tests – sometimes hundreds of tests – to actually know what is best. He will never state a supposition before he has proved it. How long before advertisers in general will apply that exactness to advertising?

Indeed, Hopkins’ advertising principles influenced a generation of admen, chief among them two towering  figures of the 1950s, Rosser Reeves of Ted Bates & Co. and David Ogilvy of Ogilvy & Mather. While Reeves and Ogilvy approached advertising from vastly different perspectives, they shared an affection for Hopkins’ book and for the vital importance of research in advertising.

In different ways, both men also scoffed at the notion of “creativity” as the basis for good advertising. “Advertising men are supposed to be salesmen!” Reeves asserted in his 1960 book, Reality in Advertising.

Rosser Reeves

Ogilvy was even more dismissive of creativity.  Formerly a top assistant to George Gallup, the preeminent public opinion researcher of the 1930s and 1940s, Oglivy was steeped in public opinion and market research as the foundation of effective advertising.  In his own book, Confessions of an Advertising Man, published in 1963, Oglivy wrote that he forbade his employees “to use the word CREATIVE to describe the functions they are to perform in our agency.”

To Reeves and Oglivy, and a generation of disciples who devoured their books, advertising was, in Oglivy’s words, “so vitally important that you should never rely on guesswork to decide it.”

Ogilvy was so thoroughly associated with research in advertising that in 1994 the Advertising Research Foundation created the David Ogilvy Research Awards “for the effective use of research in developing successful advertising.”

David Ogilvy

Reeves, meanwhile, used research to perfect his famous “unique selling proposition,” or USP, which he divided into three parts, as described in his 1960 book:

Each advertisement must make a proposition to the consumer. Not just words, not just product puffery. . . . Each advertisement must say to each reader: “Buy this product, and you will get this specific benefit. . . .

The proposition must be one that the competition either cannot, or does not, offer. It must be unique. . . .

The proposition must be so strong that it can move mass millions, i.e., pull over new customers to your product.

Reeves not only applied his USP principles to product adverting. He also wrote and produced the first series of television ads in a presidential campaign – the short “Eisenhower Answers America” spots in the 1952 election.

While the spots were technically innovative, Reeves was famously disdainful of anything “creative.” So, while he helped show political campaigns the usefulness of spot advertising, he did nothing to show them how to use creative advertising principles to sell their ideas, their programs or their personalities.

Breaking the Rules

While Reeves’ and Ogilvy’s passion for research found its way into most of advertising, their sermons against the “creatives” would win them far fewer converts. By the late 1950s, a creative revolution began sweeping Madison Avenue. And leading that revolution was a fairly new advertising firm, Doyle Dane Bernbach  — or DDB.

Bill Bernbach, the firm’s creative genius, was famous for telling his employees, “Rules are made to be broken.”  Other times he instructed them that “playing it safe can be the most dangerous thing in the world, because you’re presenting people with an idea they’ve seen before, and you won’t have an impact.”

Bill Bernbach of DDB

Bernbach hated Rosser Reeves’ “hard-sell” techniques. Instead, he would advise his colleagues, “Just make sure your advertising is saying something with substance, something that will serve and inform the consumer, and be sure you’re saying it like it’s never been said before.”

In fact, Bernbach had been preaching creativity for many years. While Reeves and Ogilvy tried to win converts to research, Bernbach was famously rebelling against it.

In May of 1947, while working at Grey Advertising, Bernbach’s vision was on display in a letter to the firm’s owners:

Our agency is getting big. That’s something to be happy about.  But it’s something to worry about, too. I’m worried that we’re going to fall into the trap of bigness, that we’re going to worship techniques instead of substance, that we’re going to follow history instead of making it, that we’re going to be drowned by superficialities instead of buoyed up by solid fundamentals. I’m worried lest hardening of the creative arteries begin to set in.

There are a lot of great technicians in advertising. And unfortunately they talk the best game. They know all the rules. They can tell you that people in an ad will get you greater readership. They can tell you that a sentence should be this long or that long. They can tell you that body copy should be broken for easier and more inviting reading. They can give you fact after fact after fact. They are the scientists of advertising. But there’s one little rub. Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.

It’s that creative spark that I’m so jealous of for our agency and that I am so desperately fearful of losing. I don’t want academicians. I don’t want scientists. I don’t want people who do the right things. I want people who do inspiring things. . . .

All this is not to say that technique is unimportant. Superior technical skill will make a good man better. But the danger is a preoccupation with technical skill or the mistaking of technical skill for creative ability. The danger lies in the temptation to buy routinized men who have a formula for advertising. The danger lies in the natural tendency to go after tried-and-true talent that will not make us stand out in competition but rather make us look like all the others.

If we are to advance, we must emerge as a distinctive personality. We must develop our own philosophy and not have the advertising philosophy of others imposed on us.

Let us blaze new trails. Let us prove to the world that good taste, good art, good writing can be good selling.

Grey, of course, did not embrace Bernbach’s advice, so in 1949 he left and with Ned Doyle and Mac Dane formed Doyle Dane Bernbach. From his perch at DDB, Bernbach and his partners set about revolutionizing product advertising with creative, innovative campaigns for companies like Avis car rental and El Al Israel Airlines

Nothing, perhaps, demonstrated the DDB-led advertising revolution better and more vividly than automobile advertising. Mediocre, bland, and conventional, automobile advertisements were not among the best examples of advertising excellence in the late 1950s. For decades, Detroit had featured artists’ illustrations of its products (rarely photographs), which, in the hands of an “artistic elongator,” often exaggerated the cars’ proportions.

DDB’s approach to advertising for Volkswagen, however, was new and honest. The print ads typically featured a large photograph of a Volkswagen Beetle or station wagon over a short, punchy, self-deprecating headline, followed by several paragraphs of text.

The first DDB magazine ad for Volkswagen in 1960 became a symbol for the dozens that followed. It featured a small photograph of a Beetle in the upper left corner of a large white space. At the bottom, over several paragraphs of irreverent text, was the simple headline: “Think small.” Many years later, Advertising Age declared “Think small” the most successful advertising campaign of the twentieth century.

1960 Volkswagen "Think small."

Another ad featured an arresting, unprecedented advertising approach, especially for an automobile. Over a large photograph of a Beetle was the simple headline, “Lemon.” The text, spotlighting the company’s meticulous inspection program, explained, “This Volkswagen missed the boat. The chrome on the glove compartment is blemished and must be replaced. Chances are you wouldn’t have noticed it; Inspector Kurt Kroner did . . . We pluck the lemons; you get the plums.”

The fresh, honest print ads, and the subsequent television commercials that DDB produced for the German company, were enormously popular and were part of the reason annual Volkswagen sales in the United States soared from 190,000 in 1960 to 567,000 by 1968.

One ad campaign, in particular, for the German automaker caught the eye of then-President John F. Kennedy.  Here’s an example at this link of the TV spots for Volkswagen that Kennedy thought were so fresh and clever.

Upon seeing the Volkswagen campaign, Kennedy instructed his brother-in-law Steven Smith to find the firm that produced the spot to see if it might be willing to work in his 1964 re-election campaign. When Kennedy died, the Democratic National Committee hired DDB to handle President Lyndon Johnson‘s advertising.

It was a decision that changed the face of political advertising, introducing creative advertising principles into politics.

The result was Johnson’s groundbreaking ad campaign in 1964, featuring the most famous ad in American political history, “Daisy Girl.”

That spot, so important to the 1964 race and to political advertising for a generation or more, was never shown to a focus group, nor was it the result of any poll or research, beyond the basic investigation involved in collecting the many reckless statements about nuclear war made by Johnson’s Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater.

Watch the spot a thousand times – and then tell me how to improve it with a survey or some other kind of research. While you’re at it, feel free to edit and improve the Gettysburg Address.

My point is not to suggest that research in political campaigns has no place. It clearly does. A campaign without a pollster is like airline flying through fog without radar.  Identifying and targeting voters, even micro-targeting, is enormously valuable, perhaps even essential, as is every single tool the Obama campaign – and the 2004 Howard Dean and George W. Bush campaigns before it – helped creative, develop and refine.

It is, however, one thing to suggest that research should play a larger role in political campaigns. It is quite another to believe that the quants have made obsolete the creativity and intuition of political professionals.

Twilight for the Campaign Professionals?

Were I advising a potential political candidate, I would urge him or her to learn as much as possible about voter identification and targeting. In fact, I would assign Sasha Issenberg’s The Victory Lab as required reading.

But I would also caution against becoming overly charmed or dependent on the technical bells and whistles as a substitute for the more difficult work of meeting and talking with voters in coffee shops and town meetings. For one thing, few mayoral,  state representative or congressional races can afford a team of quants like those employed by the Obama campaign.

But even if you could afford such a team, the information it provided would not vanquish the need for the kind of human interaction that is the soul of every successful campaign. Even the Obama people acknowledge that all the data they collected and crunched basically allowed them to run, essentially, thousands of school board races across the country.

“The best data for us was things we collected at the doors,” Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina said after the election. “The truth is the more we learned about data the more we learned how important the connection was . . . having a real connection with people.”

In other words, the data didn’t eliminate the need for campaign volunteers to knock on doors and recruit voters, one by one; it merely made that process more efficient by telling those volunteers which individuals they should contact for the best potential results on election day.

To my students at LSU who are studying political communication and who hope to become campaign managers and press secretaries, I will tell them to read Michael Scherer’s story in Time about the rise of the quants (and the twilight of the old pros) with skepticism.  I’ll tell them that campaigns will always need professionals and creative people with imagination (who can also read and understand a poll).

An algorithm might do a great job of helping identify a target audience. Experimental research is very useful in testing which message works best with that audience. But a computer cannot write a moving, passionate speech or create an earth-shattering television spot or deftly answer a reporter’s pointed question.

Campaigns still need creative, passionate people do that work and – as “Daisy Girl” producer Sid Myers and I argued in a recent Politico column – creativity and originality are sorely need in today’s political advertising.

Fairly early in his advertising career Bill Bernbach understood that while research had its place in persuasion and motivation, there was something more — and it is completely unquantifiable: “The truth isn’t the truth until people believe you and they can’t believe you if they don’t know what you’re saying; and they can’t know what you’re saying if they don’t listen to you; and they won’t listen to you if you’re not interesting. And you won’t be interesting unless you say things freshly, originally, imaginatively.”

For now at least, humans — not computers and their algorithms — are the only source of imagination and creativity.

So, celebrate and give the quants their due. They earned it and deserve it. But don’t forget that the best campaigns have a soul – and that’s something a computer can’t create for us. Yet.

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