It you & me.

You Don’t Understand How Campaigns Work.

Or, “You’re Doing It Wong: The Josh Kalla and David Broockman Story”

As the terribly smart pollster and analyst John Hagner of Clarity Labs notes, political scientists and political professionals like me frequently have very different ideas about how campaigns work. And the forthcoming paper by UC Berkeley’s Josh Kalla and Stanford Graduate School of Business’s David Broockman brings into sharp relief just how outdated the thinking by political professionals and pundits is.


I don’t want to get into the specifics of Kalla & Broockman’s work, since it’s been summarized pretty well in Amanda Terkel’s piece, but I want to caution that clickbaity (and inaccurate) headlines like the one her editors chose (“Traditional Campaign Tactics Are Basically A Waste Of Time, New Study Concludes”) are actually going to distract us from learning some more important lessons from this research.

Fundamentally, we should all take a moment to acknowledge that we’ve been operating under some flawed assumptions for far, far too long. And it’s long past time we corrected them, so we can build parties and campaign organizations that are optimized for the real challenges we face in order to win races.

The conventional wisdom about campaigns is that any given election starts with a certain amount of a handicap, or a baseline level of support, for the competing candidates. Each will be a certain number of natural die-hard supporters on one side of the political spectrum, committed natural opponents on the other side, and a bunch folks not really particularly interested in politics in the middle who aren’t sure for whom to vote. Our job as consultants and strategists — in this model — is to simply craft a message or theme with enough general appeal that we can attract enough folks from the middle, while alienating as few as possible supporters from our fringes, repeat that as often as possible with an escalating frequency and volume as election day approaches to add up to 50%+1 of the vote to win.

This is not how things really work. And the genius of Kalla and Broockman’s paper is that it brings together all the available experimental research to show that all of these efforts at persuasion (under this flawed model) tend to either NOT persuade voters to cross party lines, or if you can get them to do so early in a campaign… they’ll go back to the other side of the fence by Election Day.

How can this be?! We are all used to seeing polls reporting the percentage of voters supporting each candidate, and we’re used to the number of “undecideds” shrinking as the election draws near?!

The answer is quite simple, and should come as no surprise to people who know a little bit about psychology and survey work: People are notoriously bad at accurately answering questions about their intentions or behavior.

Everyone (myself included) will tell you that they, when considering an election, evaluate the issues and vote for the candidate that is closest to their policy preferences. And they probably honestly believe that. But there really aren’t very many “truly independent” voters.

Politics is a team sport. And you support your team, even to the extent that your party decides to completely swap issue preferences with the other team as we did on civil rights, or on our views about Russia and Putin.


So where does this leave us?

Well, given the above, it’s probably no surprise that it’s hard to find evidence that traditional campaign voter contact doesn’t have long-lasting significant effects on voters’ preferences. However, if we start to think about campaigning in this newer, more polarized and information-saturated environment, there are some key learnings for professionals to start implementing immediately.

  1. First, we need to give up on the notion of creating a single message designed to appeal to the mythical undecided, independent, moderate voter. Instead, we should focus our research and persuasion efforts on identifying our soft supporters and speaking to our base to excite them. In addition to new kinds of ads and ad targeting, this means we need to rethink how we structure our polling and research questions in order to inform our persuasion and targeting experiments. Recycling last year’s questions isn’t going to cut it anymore.
  2. On the plus side, pure GOTV still seems to work, as Kalla and Broockman point out. So, on the margins, campaigns can get more of their folks out to push their numbers somewhat.
  3. Finally, as partisanship and polarization has grown, the value of candidates’ individual brands has diminished dramatically. Therefore, it’s up to the parties and their issue advocacy groups and organizations to build long term persuasion efforts to shift public support for the values their candidates care about. Take a look at how support for issues like marriage equality have shifted over the years — we can change hearts and minds on values, and lay the groundwork to make it more attractive to identify with a party.

This all probably sounds a lot more radical than I think it would end up being. All the fundamental campaign operations we think of today are still (probably) necessary, but the strategic orientation — and objectives — of our messaging, contact, and persuasion need to be rethought with a more reality-based model of how real voters think, behave, and (maybe) vote.

Overall, if you’ve not spent a lot of time familiarizing yourself how political scientists’ thinking on campaigns and elections have evolved over the years, I highly recommend you read their full paper. It will give you a great summary of how we got here, and make you a lot smarter the next time you sit down to work on a campaign.

I’d love to you hear your thoughts. You can find me tweeting about advertising, digital politics, whisky, giant fighting robots and cephalopods at @SteveOlson — and if you liked this post, I’d appreciate you clicking the “clap” button below. Thanks!

Like what you read? Give Steve Olson a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.