A window into the history of political marketing

For anyone even remotely interested in the business of politics, there’s more than enough in Sasha Issenberg’s new book, “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns,” to keep you captivated.   

Issenberg's book tells the story of the social science revolution in modern campaigns, and for students of the political consulting biz, the book offers a great history lesson on the development of the profession and the political marketing gurus who made it.    

Some of that history is recounted through the eyes of Democratic strategist Hal Machow. When Malchow was a 23-year-old student his early exposure to the giants of the consulting world came through an “Institute of Politics” seminar series in Mississippi. An excerpt from “The Victory Lab”: 

"For several months, Malchow spent his weekends in a Millsaps classroom marveling at a procession of consultants who talked about their careers and the distinct roles they played in the modern electioneering enterprise. Bob Squier had happily abandoned public television when Lyndon Johnson invited him to the White House and asked him to serve as his television adviser; Squier’s camera work quickly defined the aesthetics of the thirty-second advertisement, which became the common currency of late-twentieth-century politics.   

Peter Hart launched his polling firm in 1971, one of the first generation of opinion researchers to put social science survey-taking to work for campaigns. Memphis advertising executive Deloss Walker had begun advising southern Democrats on their media strategy and eventually played the new role of the general consultant, hired by candidates to manage the increasingly varied retinue of specialists that campaigns kept on contract.

Yet even as these new sages talked about tracking and shaping public opinion in a mass-media age, the speaker who most captured Malchow’s attention was the one who practiced the oldest art. Matt Reese’s specialty had been long described as “organization.” It manifested itself in “voter contact,” the category of campaign activity that, unlike broadcast and newspaper ads, was defined by its ability to hit a single individual with precision.

“He had all these schemes,” Malchow recalls, marveling at the terms Reese had invented: Go Days, Blitz Days, Block Captain Kits. Reese’s practically minded lexicon represented an earthbound counterpart to the narrative of politics in a mass-media era, the lofty contest of ideas and broadcast messages dueling to win over the American people."

Issenberg's book is out today. Last month, C&E took some of the players in the experimentation push to lunch to talk about the evolution of experiments in campaigns. One of the key takeaways: while the resistance to the use of social science tactics in campaigns is lessening, there’s still plenty of convincing to do. 

The next challenge on the testing front, Columbia University Political Science Professor Don Green told C&E, is how to move beyond survey responses to effectively track “the outcomes we most care about.”   

“The next generation of experiments will take advantage of ready access to a wide array of different geographic media markets and maybe even individual level media markets with the ability to increasingly target messages to individuals,” said Green. “The ultimate experiment will measure voting choice—voting behavior at the precinct level or the individual level through a post-election survey.”


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