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Tuesday, August 30, 2011
Volume shooters and political yard signs

By Kevin Arnovitz

If you're a sports fan who enters the field as a professional, it won't be long before you confront some unsettling realities and your fandom is turned upside-down.

An intern in an NBA front office might discover that the team he lived and died with growing up is woefully mismanaged. A closer look at how horribly the team runs their business convinces him they deserved every misfortune that befell them. Meanwhile, its rival -- the team he's always loathed -- is actually a well-oiled machine whose day-to-day operations are governed by smart people and sound principles.

NBA teams are more than a collection of players -- they're organizations and businesses, some better than others. Hate the Lakers and Heat all you want, but however disgusted you are by what you might perceive as arrogance, they know what they're doing.

The same holds true in electoral politics.

There's the candidate -- a composite of his various policy positions, his ability to communicate that agenda and his overall manner.

Then there's the political operation -- the resourcefulness of the fund-raising team, the competence of his handlers, the agility of consultants. Is the campaign intuitive enough to pivot if the political climate demands it? Does it invest in the right message and value the smartest tactics?

That candidate who drew you in with his bold stance on the issues you care about?  If you could pull back the curtain, you might see that everything from the staff structure to the decision-making process is a disaster. You know an NBA team like this and you might even wear its logo on your chest when you work out at the gym -- just as you might have that well-intentioned, poorly organized candidate's name stuck to the bumper of your car.

Your candidate's opponent whose positions and persona you find repugnant? Turns out she has an operation that's the paragon of professionalism, the Dallas Mavericks of the campaign trail.

Sasha Issenberg is an author far more interested in the political machinery of campaigns than where their practitioners stand on tax policy or alternative energy. Issenberg covered the 2008 campaign for the Boston Globe and became fascinated by much of the stuff that goes unreported by the political press. How did campaigns decide where to send candidates on whistle-stop tours? How did they choose which media markets to saturate with ads and which to bombard with robo-calls?

But even more universally, does any of this stuff really matter?  Are campaigns decided, as some political veterans and academics maintain, on nothing more than job approval ratings and the unemployment rate? Are all the diner drop-ins, mass mailings and hit pieces nothing more than a massive sideshow?

A veteran Republican political operative named Dave Carney has been asking the same questions for the past decade or so, and Issenberg has an upcoming book titled "The Victory Lab," which chronicles Carney and the brain trust that have been working for Rick Perry for the past decade. A sneak preview of the book, "Rick Perry and His Eggheads: Inside the Brainiest Political Operation in America," has been released by Random House Digital.

How you feel about Perry as a presidential candidate is irrelevant to how entertaining and insightful Issenberg's profile of Carney and the exploration of his ideas are.

Carney had grown frustrated with the unproven assumptions that governed most political campaigns. When he signed on with Perry back in 1998, "Carney brought a deep skepticism about the folkways of campaigning, along with an almost monomaniacal obsession with the potential of scholarly methodologies to upend them."

Just as many NBA execs have traditionally based personnel decisions on entrenched stats found in box scores, political campaign consultants have also clung to assumptions that have never faced a truth squad. Since there was little if any empirical evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of various campaign tactics, Carney decided it was time to introduce analytics into the process. He went out and hired four academics who had examined many of these questions, but never had the opportunity to test their findings on a real-life campaign. (Two of the four scholars were ardently non-ideological and, if anything, had greater affiliations on the left side of the political spectrum.)

Issenberg recounts the day prior to Perry's 2006 gubernatorial primary when Carney had two of the academics -- Don Green and Alan Gerber -- introduce themselves to the old-guard operatives:
Don Green began presenting the research that he had done with Alan Gerber over the years, rigorously itemizing all the things campaigns did that he believed he had proven to be a waste of money. Green did this while facing a room filled with people who had gotten rich off these practices, and had been looking ahead to the next Perry campaign as perhaps their biggest payday yet. Carney later likened Green’s talk to “going into the Catholic church telling everyone that Mary wasn’t a virgin, and Jesus really wasn’t her son.” Carney delighted in the face-off he had manufactured, the awkward pitting of academics against professionals -- with millions of dollars, control of the country’s second largest state, and claims of intellectual supremacy all at stake...

The consultants replied as Carney expected they would -- in what he called “total denial,” boasting of pieces of mail or phone campaigns that had proven decisive in past elections. One vendor, making the case for robocalls, recalled a legendary voter-registration program that featured a recording of a little girl’s voice reminding people to sign up.

“Great,” Carney said, wrapping up the presentation. “One of you is right. Either the eggheads are right or you’re right. We’re going to prove it out, and plan our campaign and allow these guys to develop experiments for everything we do.”

Sounds an awful lot about the geeks vs. the jocks dynamic that has emerged in sports, and the further you read into Issenberg's piece, the more the parallels between the 2006 campaign and the current landscape of sports come to the surface.

Over the course of Perry's 2006 campaign, Carney and his academics unearthed all sorts of findings, implementing many of them in Perry's 2010 re-election campaign:
In addition to lawn signs, Carney banished direct mail, robocalls, newspaper ads, and visits to editorial boards -- shifts he estimated helped save $3 million during a primary in which Perry would go on to beat Hutchison by more than twenty points. Instead, Carney plowed money into a virtual network linking “home headquarters” -- each one representing a volunteer supporter who had agreed to sign up eleven friends and neighbors to vote for Perry. Every time one of them started a headquarters of his or her own, the initial recruiter got paid $20 by Perry’s campaign. “It gives those activists something to do instead of running around putting up yard signs or four-by-eights,” says Deirdre Delisi, an eventual convert to Carney’s approach. “What we really want you to do is get your friends to vote.”

After reading polls that showed wide social-media use among Perry targets, Carney thought it was possible to conduct nearly all of the campaign’s voter communication through social media and dispense with a physical infrastructure he found outdated. (Perry had none of the regional campaign offices that were standard in statewide races.) Based on Shaw’s experiments from 2006, Carney held off on running general-election ads against Democrat Bill White until just weeks before Election Day, and instead focused the candidate’s time on in-person visits to coffee shops or BBQ restaurants in small markets where they would have maximum effect. “Maybe Perry is different, because when he does an event it actually causes more excitement than a boring candidate,” Carney says. “We don’t know that. We haven’t tested that.”

Early reviews of Issenberg's book evoke comparisons to Michael Lewis' "Moneyball." Via email, Issenberg discussed how political geekery mirrored sports geekery.
The Moneyball analogy is amazingly durable with political campaigns -- the wise men who tend to be judged more on longevity than wins, the reflexive spending practices that repeat themselves regardless of results, the folks (like agents or media consultants) who thrive on commissions/contracts from the existing spending patterns and have no incentive to see them change, etc.

The same problem of trying to institutionalize competitive advantage holds in politics even more so than sports: if everyone realizes that direct mail/volume shooter are overvalued, that's unlikely to remain a proprietary finding for too long. The difference is that prices for many political services are less elastic -- direct mail costs are shaped by paper and stamp prices, TV ads costs what they do in part because of consultants' fees but mostly because they're what the station would change Procter & Gamble for the same time if Rick Perry didn't buy it. So the market won't adjust to a crappy dollar-per-votes ratio by repricing services the way the free-agent market theoretically does with talent once multiple teams begin to value it the same way.

The elasticity Issenberg might in fact be addressed in the next collective bargaining agreement. If player salaries are reduced, the margins in cost between the superstar and the journeyman will narrow, which means data-minded NBA execs will be tweaking their metrics to reflect new realities.

Whether you're selling widgets, assembling a basketball team, running a multi-million dollar political campaign, overseeing urban transit, or even navigating a romantic relationship, most of us are looking for a singular answer:

What works and what doesn't?

As Carney explains, "... a billion dollars is spent on politics every cycle. No company, no entity, no business would spend that amount of money without knowing what works. It has a lot to do with the insecurity of political people. No one who gets hired wants to admit they don’t know anything.”