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“I’m a Campaign, and You’re an Idiot”

January 3, 2013

Whew! Back from the holidays.  I hope everyone had a great one.  Going to do a little re-post here, since we are running behind a little.  This is my most recent post on our company blog.  Check us out on Facebook if you like the post.  We write about politics and marketing over there, so it’s a little more serious. Cheers!

One of the inevitable truths of working on local elections is that you will spend a lot of time around party activists and volunteers.  In the past year alone, I spoke or worked to some degree with dozens of hard-core local activists, volunteers, and party heads.  These guys (and girls) are wonderful commodities for campaigns, especially small ones.  Beyond that, most of the ones I met are really interesting people.  But on the flip side of that, these are not you’re most “outside of the box” thinkers.  It’s similar to one of those pictures that you see when you’re in elementary school where you start with your nose right in front of the paper and it’s completely blurry, and then as you pull your face back it starts to make sense.  These people pretty much have the picture up to their nose at all times.  And that’s okay.  These are the people that are willing to go to work for you whether it’s freezing cold or smoldering hot.  But at the same time, They are generally far-right of just about anyone besides this guy.  You would be hard-pressed to find candidates, consultants, pundits, or generally any individual with the slightest interest in politics that rival the dogmatic volunteers or activists that you find in local elections.  Sure, consultants and (good) candidates know how to talk to certain people, but it’s often about picking battles.  The name of the game is still productivity and compromise, despite what we’ve seen in Washington lately.  To most elected officials, the goal is to get things done for people, and the honorable ones are capable of hearing two sides to any problem.  But that’s not the case with activists.  It’s all or nothing, all the time.   So the first thing you have to learn to do in these interactions is bite your tongue, and bite it often.  One thing I heard from many Republican activists this election cycle was total, utter disgust with the notion that Obama was saddling up mass amounts of grassroots “volunteers” with cell phones, lunch money, and a stipend to do the dirty work of door-to-door campaign work.  “It’s just not right,” they would say.  “Your party shouldn’t pay you to do this stuff.  These people don’t care about his policies, just his money.”  And every time I heard it, I had to literally bite my tongue.  I’m surprised I made it through 2012 without oral surgery.

This notion of grassroots politics might seem logical to some folks.  Sure, it’s great when you find enough unpaid volunteers to do all of your canvassing, but it’s not really feasible in a lot of races.  Even in small races, tons of voter contact is missed due to lack of troops.  But beyond hitting your numbers, missing face-to-face voter contact brings up a bigger question: are we treating voters how they need to be treated?  A lot of times, I think the answer is ‘no’.  On a national scale, Mitt Romney glaringly grew more and more out of touch with voters as the campaign slogged along.  But it’s happening more and more in smaller elections.  Campaigns treat people like idiots.  And there is a pretty good reason for that: we are idiots.  You, me, the oil mogul, the drive-thru shift manager, we are all complete and utter morons when we go to the polls to vote.  This is an issue that has plagued political scientists for a long time.  Just what drives people to vote?  Well, there are plenty of theories, but the constant in the literature is that voting itself makes no sense, and thus, we are driven by irrational factors to even go to the polls.  What we do there and why we do it is anyone’s guess. The odds of one person deciding a presidential election are .00000843355, and this number is only relevant to voters in swing states in the closest of elections. That means that both candidates run dead even in the electoral college and dead even in your state, then completely dead even in your precinct, minus your vote.  The odds of this happening would be the number above with hundreds of 0’s in front of it. By my rough math, the chances of a very small election, say 2,000 voters, ending in a tie is 0.00031847133.  So that number, three ten-thousandths of a percent, is your chance of changing the local election for coroner.  It makes no sense to go vote! None! And that is why campaigns treat voters like they are dumb.  It’s because taking time out of your day to go vote is inherently a completely illogical act.

I’m in no way trying to say that voting shouldn’t be done.  I think there are ample historical examples to show that we need a system to hold our government accountable.  It’s a privilege to vote.  It’s just like online poker or marriage or any other irrational aspect of life that we take part in.  Just because it’s illogical doesn’t mean it’s not fun or fulfilling or important.  But to get the core of the question as to why campaigns interact with people like they are dumb, is easily answered by the numbers I just showed you.  We don’t know why we vote, we don’t know why we vote for certain people, and we don’t know what really swings us when we are undecided.  So what are campaigns to do?  Well, I think that question has also been answered.  Campaigns have rightfully abandoned the idea of treating people like logical, rational actors and started treating them like exactly what they are: a very tiny piece of data with plenty of clues that indicate if, how, and why they will move to the polls.  Politics is a weird game that totally throws logic out the door.  Look at this bell curve, for example. (update: a reader pointed out that this example using income does not follow a normal probability distribution. Let’s assume the curve represents something like the height of all individuals in a population.)Disregard the text and let’s say this indicates something like the average income of Americans.  You’ve got the big part in the middle, the mean or average, and then it goes down or up, depending on which side you’re looking at.  Those ends that run along the lines are the tails, and in this example they represent the people that will make far more or far less than the average.  This is a quantifiable problem, and so the tails are short.  They represent small populations on both ends.  But if you took a bell curve based on something like why people vote, you would have much longer tails.  There would be the big part in the middle which could represent people aligning with the major parties, but you would have long tails on either side that represent fringe groups, independents, single-issue voters, or one-off voters driven to the polls by a singular candidate.  Essentially, it makes little sense.  Long tails indicate outliers, just weird stuff that happens for no reason.  In this case, it’s voters that vote based on illogical assumptions.    And thus, campaigns must treat voters like the idiots we are.

Campaigns treating voters as data isn’t new.  Even William McKinley knew how many people he needed to get to his front door, he just didn’t have the tools to figure out how he would get them there.  But now we have those tools, and we aren’t going to candidate’s doors anymore.  If you want to win elections today, you have to segment your population and dig into what makes each individual tick.  Karl Rove boasted that he essentially knew the name of every person he needed to swing in 2000 to get George W. elected.  But knowing their names and getting them to the polls is a different story (SPOILER ALERT: Rove got them to the polls, sort of.)

So how does all of this tie in to what I was talking about earlier in regard to Obama paying for ground troops?  Well, it turns out that there is a lot of evidence and science that proves that going to a voter’s house is still the undisputed king of voter turnout tactics.  This book, a personal favorite of mine, shows statistical evidence of what works and what doesn’t work to turn out voters.  While only dealing with voter turnout and not campaign tactics that focus on accruing supporters, it shows that direct contact is still the best way (and essentially the only truly effective way) to bump turnout upwards.   So why not pay people to go door-to-door? It works.  It works all the time.  But people would rather send flashy mail or make commercials.  Listen, I may be an idiotic voter, but seeing a guy standing next to two elderly people at a local Cracker Barrel on some colorful piece of mail doesn’t mean a thing to me.  Why not slim down the effort on all the fluff and go talk to the people that decide your fate?  Essentially, voters are idiots that campaigns see as a piece of data, but how you treat the idiots is still important.  Social media is a fairly ridiculous concept, but somehow it works for marketing and campaigns and all sorts of other stuff.  Going to someone’s door to talk to them about your campaign is ludicrous, but people vote based on ludicrous assumptions. We’re all idiots when it comes to buying, selling, voting, dating, whatever.  It’s all about how you embrace it and use this notion.  Here’s an example I love: When you see a bright, colorful piece of mail, what do you think? I think marketing or coupons or someone selling me something I don’t need.  Certainly, whoever sent the mail would need to make it look great if I’m even going to entertain the idea of buying what they’re selling.  But what about a piece of mail that is in an envelope with your name stamped on it?  When you open it up, there is a letter addressed to you.  Even if both pieces say the same thing, which one says to you ” this piece of mail needs to be read and taken seriously?”  The answer is obvious. Now imagine that the first piece rattles off a bunch of GOP talking points, but the second one talks about maintaining my chosen lifestyle, protecting what I care about, and changing what I think needs to be changed.  What do I care if whoever sent the mail piece only knows what I like because they pulled tons of info about me from a database? The second piece speaks to me, plain and simple.  And when I get in my car and go spend hours getting to the polls and I get rained on and put myself through all that illogical garbage to cast my vote, what will I remember? I’ll remember what spoke to me personally, even if these things are terrible reasons for casting a vote for a particular candidate.  That is the kind of contact campaigns should be focused on using.  It may sound harsh, but it’s the beauty of the whole election process.

Candidates can make promises the first time around based on what matters to voters, but they still have to stick to them.  If not, we can always boot them out.  It’s the beauty of the whole thing, and it gives candidates that stick to their guns a leg up on anyone else.  We are all just a bunch of illogical fools, but I want to be treated like an illogical fool that matters.  Personally, I’m okay with knowing that to any campaign, I’m just a little guy with a bunch of data attached to me, because that’s where we are with modern technology.  Most people are too worried about their own lives to ingest all the information that it takes to cast an informed vote.  So inherently, the campaign that knows how to talk to the idiots is in the driver’s seat.  And if I know I’m getting taken for a ride, at least do me the courtesy of making me feel a little bit special.  That’s all us idiots ask.


From → Politics

  1. Reblogged this on Missing That Last Piece and commented:
    Good piece on voting here (from the conservative side of the fence). There’s a subtlety here that was missed, however:

    1) (And this is just a silly quibble) Income distribution is not a Gaussian distribution. 😦
    2) More critically, the odds of having the deciding vote are actually much higher, even in some arbitrary 2000 person election.
    The dynamics of decision-making mean that voters (and anyone else in a decision-making situation) act as probability distributions.

    In other words, if you consider the chances that any given person will change their mind from the last time they voted for a similar issue, that probability is heavily affected by whether or not their friends and neighbours will change their mind (and which way they voted last time). And those, in turn, are probability distributions.

    It’s one of the reasons that every once in a while there is a real change in the voting characteristics of a region: enough people were far enough out on their voting pdf that they had a cascading influence on those around them. The easy way of talking about this is “swing voters”, but that’s actually not what’s happening. Understanding the dynamics of this from a campaign perspective can help understand what the inflection points are in changing the vote.

    Nice points and a good read.

    • Aaron, thanks for the read and the awesome comment. You are absolutely right about the income example, so I’m going to go back and change that up. Your second point is of course what political scientists and analysts have been trying to figure out for years: what is the social reach and impact of turning a voter to your side? You made a good point in stating that individuals act as probability distributions with real ability to move the election if they are vocalizing these intentions to others. To be sure, in local elections, you’re still aiming to turn geographic areas in hopes that others vote like their neighbors. But the numbers I used exist in a vacuum, where each vote is random and independent. Obviously this isn’t true in elections, but it gives you an idea of rough odds in relation to how much a vote counts for. In my opinion, and i’m sure you’ve studied up on this a great deal, trying to move voters based on geography is a bit primitive. With the data we have, we can move them with messages that relate directly to what they care about and less relating to geography. In regard to swing voters, I think that in ANY partisan election, there are swing voters! I wouldn’t want to be doing what I do if I believed that swing voters were only moving their votes based on those around them and not based on the message they receive. They are why campaigns matter. An interesting pew report I just saw showed how the gaps of independent voters were widening, so I think there are absolutely voters that are moving towards candidate-based voting each cycle, and they are doing it independently of those around them. It may be coincidence if they happen to be near each other. In some areas, swing voters may be grouped closely, in some areas they may be spread apart. That’s the beauty of the data, you can group them based on what makes them a ‘swing’ voter and target them regardless of location. Anyway, I appreciate your time and I sent you a Facebook friend request. I’d like to chat about this stuff in more depth. Cheers!

    • Oh, and one last little tidbit. The actual probability of holding the deciding vote is not higher than my number. That’s your probability of YOUR SINGULAR VOTE being the deciding factor. Your vote doesn’t carry any more weight itself, but your vocalization of your choice may carry more weight. This is where I love social media, because it quantifies, at least to an extent, how important your political choices are due to the size and quality of your network.

      • You are, of course, correct. The strict probability that ones vote will decide the election is infinitesimal. I think the danger (and you’ve acknowledged this) is of perceiving voting as an isolated behaviour that occurs only while standing in line in the rain for the voting box. The process of voting is more rational than that specific behaviour because it involves the social dynamics that you’ve invoked in your reply to my comment.

        By the way, if you haven’t already, I highly recommend reading some of the work by Barry Wellman ( In particular, his work on defining the meaning of community in a digitally social age is fascinating. He’s particularly good in arguing that our social reach is much, much larger than it was prior to social media and that this extended community is just as important and effective as the neighbourly community of the classic 1950’s suburban America. It makes for some interesting post-geographical social theory.

        I also want to clarify my criticism of swing voter terminology. I think we should move beyond discovering what makes swing voters for the purposes of targeting them, and move towards understanding why people become swing voters so we can _create_ them. A more dynamic voting population (which you’ve suggested is occurring anyway) is, I think, more valuable for campaigners and democracy. Imagine if we could actually reason with aware and self-aware voters as a majority of the population!

        (I’m very pleased to have found this blog, as you may have noticed.)

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