Posted by: Judy K. Warner | December 4, 2012

How Liberal Groups Nudged Obama to Victory

The Obama campaign achieved what looked like a miracle: They found millions of new voters who gave him his win.  How they did it is the subject of a book by Sasha Issenberg, The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns. Issenberg was interviewed by Ernest Istook on his morning talk show at the Heritage Foundation, Istook Live!

Istook wrote up the interview in a fascinating summary of the groups involved in the project and some of their methods.  He begins:

More than 4 million people who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 did not vote this year. But by applying new voter science, Obama nudged enough replacements in key states — many who were rare or first-time voters — to give him his margin of victory (leveraged even larger by the Electoral College).

Years of stealthy multimillion-dollar efforts paid off for America’s left in the 2008 and 2012 victories by President Barack Obama. Using new voter science to get rare and first-time voters to go to the polls, the races have changed America’s electorate — those who make the country’s decisions by showing up and voting.

In the 2004 presidential campaign Republicans used micro-targeting to characterize voters, and that was new and exciting. Apparently the Republicans haven’t moved much farther than that in the last eight years, while the Democrats have built up a massive infrastructure, staffed by some of the best social scientists and political experts around.

One of their groups, Analyst Institute (AI), employs hundreds of data analysts and behavioral scientists, mostly from top-level colleges. AI is like a private think tank, and it has conducted hundreds of experiments relating to voter behavior. Its 2009 and 2010 research priorities included:

  • What Are The Predictors Of Persuadability?
  • Increase The Use Of Impact?Based Communications.
  •  Which Advocacy Tactics Are Most Effective?
  •  How Can We Best Use Social Networking Technology?
  •  How Can We Effectively Engage Surge Voters?
  •  Can We Experimentally, And Quickly, Test The Impact Of Television Ads?
  •  Enhance Skills Of The Progressive Data Community.

In 2012 the Obama campaign used the knowledge gathered over several years to effectively target potential voters. Istook quotes Issenberg:

The work of Analyst Institute has “upended much of what the political world thought it knew about how voters’ minds work, and dramatically changed the way that campaigns approach, cajole, and manipulate them.”

There’s more; read the whole thing. And read some of the comments, especially one by James B, about the 7th one down.

In my last post I said the Republicans have to copy the Obama campaign’s methods. But we also have to adapt them to suit our character. I think Democrats have to cajole and manipulate voters because they can’t win without ignorant and disengaged people. Their experiments were about how to get them just engaged enough to vote for Obama. They didn’t even engage them enough to vote for other Democrat candidates! It was all about Obama’s personality and coolness and motivating them for a one-time, one-candidate vote.

Republicans aren’t going to win that way. First of all, we don’t have any cool candidates. (If one appears, he or she is immediately targeted for destruction by the left.) And unlike the Democrats, we have something real to offer people. So we certainly want to know about how to motivate people to vote, how to engage people, how to use social networking, and so on. But we don’t have to approach the job with the sneaky attitude of the left. They instinctively lie; we don’t. We do have to learn how to communicate much better, and I’ll have something to say about that in a future post.

If any readers know of relevant research going on among Republicans, let me know.



  1. I think the first lesson to be learned from the Obama victory is that you have to respect your opponent. You don’t have to like him and you certainly don’t have to agree with him, but you have to respect him. He and his party have bested you in two successive elections, and if things don’t change they will best you in the next two as well. There are not enough ignorant and disengaged people in the electorate to elect a President; the Democrats also had to rely on a significant number of engaged, intelligent, and well-informed voters who aren’t stupid, but just have different values and different interests from yours.

    I think you are being very short-sighted (and dismissive, and disrespectful) to say that Democrat voters are ignorant and disengaged. Some are, of course; and so are some Republican voters. But many Democrat voters (and independents who voted Democrat this time) are intelligent, thoughtful people who have different values and different interests from yours. There is nothing you can do to reach the Democratic base; but you have to reach the people outside the base who voted Democrat, and if you think of them as stupid sheep you will inevitably send the message that that is what you think of them. You will never reach them that way.

    Characterizing Democratic voters as stupid and disengaged, and as needing to be cajoled and manipulated is no better than (and really no different from) Obama talking about people who cling to their God and their guns, etc.

    Positing a great moral gulf between Democrats and Republicans is a non-starter. Lyndon Johnson was a famous liar, and he was a Democrat (the phrase “credibility gap” was coined in his honor). But Nixon and Agnew were world-class liars as well, and they were Republicans. To paraphrase Solzhenitsyn, the dividing line between good and evil is not between the two political parties; it goes straight through the middle of every human heart.

  2. Whoa, Chris, calm down. You are misinterpreting what I wrote. Each party has its base, and I wasn’t talking about the Democrat base. The subject of the post is how the campaign recruited new voters who ordinarily don’t vote by applying their research. These voters were, in other words, disengaged from politics and the campaign engaged them. That is a fact. Furthermore, “ignorant” is not a synonym for “stupid.” it means unknowing. Because they were not interested in politics they were ignorant of political matters. These are factual descriptions, not insults or value judgments. I myself am disengaged and ignorant when it comes to football.

    Perhaps I should have been clearer about the lying Democrats. Today’s Democrat operatives and leaders (not the rank and file) are not like Democrats in the past, especially Obama and his pals. They are more like Communists in their willingness to do anything to win. And goodness knows I don’t want to paint Republicans as saints. There have been plenty of dirty tricks in campaigns over the years. But they simply don’t approach the level of unscrupulousness that today’s Democrats have shown.

  3. “misinterpreting what I wrote”

    I think an objective reader seeing you claim:

    — “they can’t win without ignorant and disengaged voters”
    — “they instinctively lie; we don’t”
    — they have a “sneaky attitude” but (implicitly) we don’t, because we would have to “adopt” it

    would conclude that you are positing moral divide, not just a policy divide, between the parties. If I misinterpreted you, you gave me a lot of help.

    Also, I forgot to say in my first post that I don’t agree with you that the Republicans don’t have any cool candidates. Ron Paul was plenty cool (not electable, sadly, but cool). I think Bobby Jindal (despite the Alfred E. Neumann look) will prove to be pretty cool.

    At one time, I thought Sarah Palin was cool, too. I had had my eye on her long before she got the VP bid, and I was pretty excited when McCain picked her (I was still a Republican in those days). Unfortunately, she proved in a very short time not to be very smart. Glib, but not smart. I do not believe it is realistic to say that she was “destroyed” by the left. She gave them plenty of help.

  4. I was thinking of Sarah Palin, among a couple of others. She had a stellar career and accomplished things that others hadn’t been able to in Alaska. She’s certainly smart. Allen West is another one, and the Democrats poured resources into the campaign to unseat him. He didn’t have the chance to reach a national level, but I sure hope he doesn’t go away.

    Let me put what I said in another way. The majority of Americans today are center-right when they are asked how they identify themselves and asked whether they think government does too much or too little. Republicans should naturally win national elections, but they are pretty hopeless on a national level at communicating their message in a way that resonates. It’s not for nothing that they have long been described as the stupid party. Anyway, what this means is that the Dems have to overcome the voters’ tendency to vote to the right. Their main tactic is to destroy the Republican brand, and George W. Bush made that possible, even easy. The Obama campaign announced early on that their strategy for the campaign was to “kill Romney.” Those are their words. The ads and social media messages were stunning in their dishonesty. Romney killed a guy’s wife by causing her cancer? But they worked.

    I’m wrong that this is new. I remember Lyndon Johnson’s campaign against Barry Goldwater. The famous daisy ad convinced many voters that Goldwater would start a nuclear war. But Johnson did not continue to campaign after he won the way the Obama people are. I’ll write about his permanent campaign in the future.

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