Shoe-Leather Politics

11:04pm | 03/11/2018
Daniel Tompkins

elections politics

In The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns (SSWC), the closed curtains typically shrouding the inner-workings of campaigns are drawn open, providing an insider's view on voter acquisition and the organizational topographies that feed these intense mobilization efforts. With some exceptional first-person accounts from leading figures in political science and campaign management, Sasha Issenberg details an intimate narrative of how these election machines have evolved. What is particularly interesting is how political veterans are adapting old "shoe-leather politics" to incorporate modern and interdisciplinary strategies in data analytics, voter microtargeting, and predictive algorithmic modeling.

In the small town where I grew up, there was a traveling carnival that would setup rides for a week or two each summer. For someone with no practical experience in politics, the electoral race feels somewhat comparable— an extravagant kind of political parade that pops up in the collective American consciousness every four years. In much of the literature, the campaign is portrayed as a high-stakes and nimble game. Issenberg, quoting an unnamed official, emphasizes the fierce drive of the campaign quite frankly:

"There is no day after the election."1

Garnering support and popular recognition can take years of preparation and organization; and once those ballots are cast, that's the end of it. Win or lose, the volunteers go home and the field offices close up shop.

During discussion in Nicco Mele's The Internet and Political Campaigns, I've been taken aback by the amount of tools and infrastructure that is often left by the wayside. The different systems and software for tracking voter data, predicting voter turnout, or strategically analyzing and leveraging undecided votes— developed and deployed with impressive turnaround— can simply disappear. Sometimes data makes its way back to the candidate's respective national committee; but, by and large as these teams dissolve, so too will the tools and infrastructure.2

The introduction of the political scientist seems to mark a signficant change in this culture of disposability— studying the existing structure and methods in order to apply the same tactics to future social or political mobilization. In keeping with what Daniel Kreiss proffers in Prototype Politics, discussed in my last post, political scientists— drawing from an amalgamation of traditional marketing techniques, social sciences and behavioral psychology— seek to generate concrete and reproducible models of which strategies work and why.

On the technical side, this conservationism sometimes manifests in post-election consultancies— rejecting the dissolution of months or years of work by redeveloping software and services as private-sector businesses. What political scientists bring to the table is a new level of rigor and precision, proving or disproving even long-standing campaign methods with carefully constructed tests and analysis. For the veteran campaigner, inviting a political scientist or technical virtuoso within the walls of the inner circle— unsettling deeply entrenched conventions on how to distribute precious time and funds— takes a lot of convincing. However, for the pragmatic Dave Carney— indoctrinated into the business of campaigning since 1980— it became a simple question of cost:

We spend a lot of money on mail and phones... If it's not working, let's spend it on things that do work, or don't spend it... There was more to it than doing the same old thing over and over.3

Carney's shrewdness (and his audacity) to reach beyond the walled garden of politics, created an opportunity for fruitful exchange— putting some shine back in that old shoe-leather.

Of course, this isn't an isolated incident. The rise of computing has marked an incredible paradigm shift that is still transforming many professions. During my undergraduate in architecture, this was evident in the fierce ideological rejection of computer-aided design (CAD) by those who had traditionally worked on hand-drafted drawings— now regarded as a laborious and antiquated practice among most modern designers. Digital rendering, Adobe Photoshop, parametric modeling, virtual reality tours, and other technical utilites for representing or expressing a space have become ubiquitous to the architectural firm. Yet some of these tools weren't even invented until the past decade!

Similarly, the long-standing practices of political campaigns, though not entirely replaced or subsumed by the latest in technical innovation, are bound to be informed— even augmented— by these dramatic changes. Nevertheless, architects haven't stopped sketching— and canvassers haven't stopped knocking on doors. However, since the introduction of political scientists onto the campaign trail, those activities that had once been taken for granted have indeed faced renewed scrutiny— re-evaluated to test their relevance against new and changing contexts, demographics and media.

One of the more remarkable changes that resulted from this interdisciplinary exchange is the influence behavioral psychology has had on campaign strategy:

Election scholars had ignored large swaths of modern psychology, which was increasingly identifying ways in which people were neither socially preprogrammed toward certain attitudes nor walking calculators able to make perfectly rational choices.4

However, there is at least one company, the data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica (CA), that claims to have found an effective way for campaigns to capitalize on voter psychology. The role CA played in the 2016 campaign has only been further obfuscated since the election; however, in the frenzy to capitalize on the golden question of "How Trump Won the Campaign", CA is an easy target for pointing fingers.

In the months leading up to their partnership with the Trump campaign, CA had been publicly promoting their use of the OCEAN model for "psychographic" profiling; but, Brad Parscale, the campaign's digital media director (now assigned to the post of campaign manager for 2020) has since underplayed the role CA had in the campaign's outcome.5 Additionally, only about 4 months after Trump's victory, The New York Times published an article which states that "Cambridge executives now concede that the company never used psychographics in the Trump campaign."6

In April of 2016, WIRED Magazine included Alexander Nix, CA's CEO, in 25 Geniuses Who Are Creating the Future of Business, stating:

For too long... demographics and purchasing behavior have been the primary guideposts of the marketing industry, used to guess what a target audience might want. Now Nix's company... can provide psychological profiling to help advertisers tailor their messages to specific personality types.7

But if CA isn't using demographics or purchasing behavior to build these models, what are they using? Additionally, how are they getting this data? This has proven to be a difficult question. CA might actually have a legitimate legal defense in claiming that the relinquishing of data, or any specific details about how this data informs its personality profiles, would compromise their business model. As a result, CA's "secret sauce" is rendered irresolvable.8 In fact, if they'd just kept their mouths shut, this black magic campaigning might look like a surefire advantage to future candidates.

Issenberg, however— offers a quote by the economist Richard Thaler to emphasize the difficulty of implementing an effective strategy drawn from behavioral psychology:

The science half of political science is to some extent a bit of a misnomer. At least no one has been quite ready to agree on what the science part of it is.9

Brent Seaborn— manager of another political data consultancy, TargetPoint— corroborates this sentiment in the same article from The Times, saying of CA:

They've got a lot of really smart people; but it's not as easy as it looks to transition from being excellent at one thing and bringing it into politics. I think there's a big question about whether we think psychographic profiling even works.10

Unremarkably, people do want to know whether or not these tactics work, and Trump's victory has especially peaked both public and private interests into the inner-workings of these algorithmic "black boxes" and how they're determining viable targets— and potentially shaping campaigns. Issenberg explicitly emphasizes how political scientists, and a culture of rigorous and precise testing, is really where this understanding emerges.

However, Issenberg lends another vantage— that of political scientist Samuel Popkin, previously a Harvard statistics professor. Popkin's attitude, as interpreted by Issenberg, was that "even those with college diplomas could never gather all the information necessary to weigh the entire set of costs and benefits attached to each issue or candidate."11 Despite the impasse this contingency creates, Issenberg's book is titled "The Victory Lab"; and not "We Don't Know What the Hell is Going On". And I think, overall, Issenberg still maintains that the true value in political science is dependant on a process of critical decision-making informed by rigorous testing— perhaps, drawing from an indulgence of informed but intuitive feelings about where to direct these efforts without discounting old methods of campaigning.

Issenberg quotes Popkin— commenting on the political campaign in his book, The Reasoning Voter:

These contests are commonly criticized as tawdry and pointless affairs, full of dirty politics, dirty tricks, and mudslingings, which ought to be cleaned up, if not eliminated from the system. In their use of sanitary metaphors, however, many of these critiques confuse judgments of American culture with aesthetic criticisms of American politicians... They do not look closely at how voters respond to what they learn from campaigns, and they do not look closely at the people they wish to sanitize. If campaigns are vulgar, it is because Americans are vulgar.

Popkin elaborates his forthright conception of the electorate in an article for the Washington Post entitled We Need Loud, Mean Campaigns.12 Coming more from the side of the "sanitizers", I would definitely feel uncomfortable with some of the ethical decisions made over the course of a campaign. Reading about voter suppression techniques, I was pretty disgusted that this was an integral part of campaigning. But, as Popkin points out, this sentiment isn't going to prevent the opposition from employing the same tactics; nor will it encourage and enliven debate:

Reformers say they want to turn down the volume, discuss more important issues and turn out more voters— worthy goals, but also contradictory. Decorous campaigns will not raise more important issues. Neither will they mobilize more voters nor overcome offstage mutterings about race and other social issues... If government is going to be able to solve our problems, we need bigger and noisier campaigns to rouse voters.13

In the 2016 election— arguably the biggest and noisiest yet— Trump seems an ideal candidate to test this theory. And Popkin isn't wrong! The amount of expression that I've personally witnessed, especially online, is astounding. The election has disintegrated friendships; thrust questions of racism, sexism, immigration, nationalism and equality to the forefront of public discourse; and polarized partisan politics to an extreme.

What Popkin's model of voter behavior does not guarantee, however, is that these loud, mean campaigns will result in productive change. While popular involvement in political discussion and mobilization have experienced a revitalization unlike any other election in years, the new methods of communication— though providing an ubiquitous channel for agonistic speech— have effectively cloistered oppositional opinions and shrouded those "echo chambers" in a layer of static that has proven incredibly difficult to penetrate.

Popkin's article was published in 1991, and I'm curious to know whether or not he maintains his opinions even now... The passionate lifeblood, the "brass bands" and excitement, has certainly found its way back into the political campaign; but I don't think we have the tools to mitigate this stimulation.14 I think Popkin's intentions are good; but as the campaign becomes louder and meaner, so must the old shoe-leather politics evolve to confront this noise— leveraging popular participation with modern means of political action and social reform.


1 Issenberg, Sasha. The victory lab: the secret science of winning campaigns. New York: B \ D \ W \ Y, Broadway Books, 2016.

2 From my understanding, the DNC or RNC will essentially lease out data and/or services under the contractual agreement that their candidate will contribute any additional voter data or statistics back to the committee

3 Dave Carney, Ibid. 1

4 Ibid. 1

5 The OCEAN model ranks a person's: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism

6 Confessore, Nicholas, and Danny Hakim. "Data Firm Says ‘Secret Sauce’ Aided Trump; Many Scoff." The New York Times, March 6, 2017. Accessed March 15, 2018.

7 Wired Staff. "25 Geniuses Who Are Creating the Future of Business." WIRED Magazine, April 26, 2016

8 A phrase used by Nix to describe the algorithmic "black box" used to generate its psychographic models. Ibid.

9 Richard Thaler, Ibid. 1

10 Brent Seaborn, Ibid. 6

11 Ibid. 1

12 Popkin, Samuel L. "We Need Loud, Mean Campaigns; Because That's the Only Way Americans Will Pay Attention." The Washington Post, December 1, 1991. Accessed March 16, 2018.

13 Ibid. 12

14 Ibid. 12