Barry McNamara  |   Published October 20, 2016

Campaign analytics

Political journalist Issenberg explains what they are and how they work
  • Sasha Issenberg speaks with a Monmouth College student about the upcoming election.

National political journalist Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, shared some of those secrets during a talk Thursday evening at Monmouth College.

In a typical presidential election year, having Issenberg speak less than three weeks before the presidential election would provide key insights about what the campaigns would be trying to do behind the scenes to influence the outcome. But Issenberg conceded that this is not a typical presidential year.

“We might have imagined there’d be a little more suspense about the outcome,” said Issenberg, who was invited to campus by Monmouth political science lecturer Robin Johnson. “So I’m going to talk a little less about what to look for to know who is going to win, and more about how that person is going to win.”

Issenberg’s specialty is analytics, and he shared how that aspect of political campaigns has grown.

“The word ‘analytics’ did not exist in campaigns 40 years ago. Starting in the 1960s, campaigns started to look at what had been a scattered collection of voter records, and put them in a database,” he said, adding that census data was also collected. “In the 1990s, people in politics realized that consumer data existed, as well, and they were able to tap into private sector databases.”

Such data didn’t indicate exactly how a person voted, but it could paint a broader picture, such as three-fourths of the people living in a certain precinct voted for a particular party.

With the rise of the Internet and Big Data, the number of data points for any given voter has grown from “more than a dozen data points into the hundreds, and even the thousands,” Issenberg said. “But how do you sort through it all to make sense of it?”

The bottom line is that campaigns are interested in answers to two main questions: How likely is a person to vote? Who is that voter likely to support? Campaigns now use algorithms to compute scores for voters in those categories.

“Everyone is given these scores automatically,” Issenberg said. “It’s kind of like a credit score for politics. That allows campaigns to send one type of mail to one type of voter, while others will receive a different type of mail. The best campaigns are using that type of research.”

Armed with that information, campaigns place voters into one of three main categories: “base,” who have a strong likelihood of voting, and of voting for that party’s candidate; “get out to vote” (GOTV), who don’t always vote, but when they do they are likely to vote for the party’s candidate; and “persuadables,” who typically vote but don’t show allegiance to one party.

People who have the characteristics of a party’s voters but aren’t registered constitute another category, but they weren’t part of an equation that Issenberg and a colleague devised: the base vote plus the GOTV and persuadables needs to be more than the minimum number of votes needed for a win.

“With that type of information, you can start to reverse-engineer to see what type of campaign you need to run,” he said.

2016 Battleground States

Issenberg shared analytics that were prepared for Hillary Clinton’s campaign last December. The information included strategies for battleground states, such as: getting people registered in North Carolina and Nevada; pushing voter turnout in Minnesota; and convincing persuadables in Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio.

“Persuadables tend to be in whiter, older states,” Issenberg said.

The other key component of his analytics is the “arithmetic” needed for victory in each state, using Issenberg’s equation. He showed, for example, that Clinton can win in Nevada “if she mobilizes her massive list of GOTV targets, which includes many Hispanics and young voters.”

He said that in Pennsylvania her GOTV targets, especially African-Americans in the Philadelphia area, “will put her over the line.” Looking at a state from Donald Trump’s perspective, “the climb is deep” for him in Michigan, where winning over a vast majority of persuadables is his only path to victory.

Issenberg showed how states such as a Virginia and Wisconsin have a “structural advantage” for Democrats, with stronger base and GOTV numbers than the Republican Party.

In Arizona, which he called “the flavor of the week,” Issenberg said that Trump begins with a substantial advantage. But if Clinton wins Arizona, it will be because of “ticket splitters” – voters who stay with their GOP tendency and vote for John McCain for Senate but who vote for Clinton for president.

He also discussed Missouri, which “no one else is talking about.”

“If a third-party candidate siphons some of the GOP vote, that could be Clinton’s last electoral vote, which is either incredibly inspiring or incredibly depressing, depending on your take,” he said.

Issenberg likened the strategy of Clinton’s near-certain victory to political looting.

“It’s like looting has broken out,” he said. “Do I want to take this VCR, or do I want to take these sneakers? Those are the choices for Clinton. She can campaign in a way that will give her a landslide in the electoral vote or the popular vote and really establish a mandate. Or she can campaign in a way that will help with key Senate races. She could do the same in the House, although that’s more of a longshot, but she could at least cut into (Speaker Paul) Ryan’s advantage. Or she could try to affect a long-term landscape change,” going after Republican strongholds.

Issenberg’s talk, which was co-sponsored by Security Savings Bank, was part of the College’s expanded scope of election coverage. Another event, featuring J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, is planned for Nov. 15.

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