Obama uses science to beat Romney

The anti-science bent of certain elements of the Republican party (Creationism anyone?) is obviously repugnant to many people, including me. Now it appears that stance came back to bite Mitt Romney during the presidential election.

The Obama campaign secretly assembled a team of famous experts in psychology, persuasion, and behavioral economics to plan out campaign strategy and messaging:

This election season the Obama campaign won a reputation for drawing on the tools of social science. The book “The Victory Lab,”
by Sasha Issenberg, and news reports have portrayed an operation that
ran its own experiment and, among other efforts, consulted with the
Analyst Institute, a Washington voter research group established in 2007
by union officials and their allies to help Democratic candidates.
Less well known is that the Obama campaign also had a panel of unpaid
academic advisers. The group — which calls itself the “consortium of
behavioral scientists,” or COBS — provided ideas on how to counter false
rumors, like one that President Obama
is a Muslim. It suggested how to characterize the Republican opponent,
Mitt Romney, in advertisements. It also delivered research-based advice
on how to mobilize voters.
“In the way it used research, this was a campaign like no other,” said Todd Rogers,
a psychologist at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a former
director of the Analyst Institute. “It’s a big change for a culture that
historically has relied on consultants, experts and gurulike
This team of scientists provided concrete, actionable strategies to the Obama campaign:
For example, Dr. Fiske’s research has shown that when deciding on a
candidate, people generally focus on two elements: competence and
warmth. “A candidate wants to make sure to score high on both
dimensions,” Dr. Fiske said in an interview. “You can’t just run on the
idea that everyone wants to have a beer with you; some people care a
whole lot about competence.” 

Mr. Romney was recognized as a competent businessman, polling found. But
he was often portrayed in opposition ads as distant, unable to relate
to the problems of ordinary people. 

When it comes to countering rumors, psychologists have found that the
best strategy is not to deny the charge (“I am not a flip-flopper”) but
to affirm a competing notion. “The denial works in the short term; but
in the long term people remember only the association, like ‘Obama and
Muslim,’ ” said Dr. Fox, of the persistent false rumor. 

The president’s team affirmed that he is a Christian. 

At least some of the consortium’s proposals seemed to have found their
way into daily operations. Campaign volunteers who knocked on doors last
week in swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Nevada did not merely
remind people to vote and arrange for rides to the polls. Rather, they
worked from a script, using subtle motivational techniques that research
has shown can prompt people to take action.
I recently wrote about the Obama campaign as the heir to Lee Atwater’s mantle of ruthless, decisive campaigning; it seems that the team there also inherited his mantle of applying science and technology to winning elections.
There’s an old saying, “Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight.”  The Republican Party better start focusing on applying science, or it will be doing precisely that in its campaigns.

1 thought on “Obama uses science to beat Romney

  1. About the last point: I volunteered a couple of hours to get out the vote in my neighborhood. The field organizer told us to ask people what their plan was for voting (and help them formulate one if they didn't have one already), because, he said, research shows that people are more likely to do something when they articulate a specific plan. I didn't realize this was part of a broader "use social science in the campaign" strategy! Very interesting.

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