‘The Victory Lab’: more sizzle than steak

By Liam O’Neill

Book Review

In the wake of the 2012 U.S. presidential election, the marketing techniques used by the Obama campaign have attracted considerable hype. Could it be that the “old-time” political strategists, such as James Carville and Karl Rove, have been supplanted by a new generation of econometricians with laptops? This is the central message of the bestselling book “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns” by Sasha Issenberg. Yet anyone looking for “Moneyball for politics” is likely to be disappointed. The evidence for this “tectonic shift” comes mainly from the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012, yet two data points do not make a trend.

I had expected to learn about novel applications of analytics or econometrics. However the book contains little, if any, description of quantitative models, and even “regression” is only mentioned once. Rather the “scientific approach” seems to refer to randomized experiments along with some vague statistical techniques that are not fully explained.

The author follows the dictum, “Show, don’t tell,” which works for journalism but not for social science. The facts presented do not explain themselves, and the conga line of political consultants is generic and unmemorable. Broader themes are hinted at but not developed. Instead we get free-flowing descriptions of the passengers and the scenery along the bus routes of Akron, Ohio, before learning that the Obama campaign placed ads on those buses in order to reach a key demographic of likely supporters. At 352 pages, the book is about 200 pages too long.

Missing is any discussion of the impact of actual policies. For example, how did President Obama’s new immigration policy affect his support among Hispanics? Instead, the focus is on minutiae, such as the color of envelopes or whether the campaign mailing should contain an implied threat or an implied reward. (It turns out that threats are more effective.) In this world, policies are like product attributes that are beyond the purview of marketing. The depressing result is that the choice between “Obama vs. McCain” is not much different from that of “Coke vs. Pepsi.”

In contrast to “Moneyball,” politics is not a meritocracy and quantitative techniques do not always gain or lose market share based on objective metrics. As the book recounts, the political sages and gurus of the day will fiercely defend their turf against any disruptive innovations that may come along. Thus proving that you can’t take the politics out of politics.

Parts of the book may resonate with economists and political scientists, such as the descriptions of sample selection bias and survey design. For example, the “Bradley effect” refers to the tendency of white voters to overstate their support for a black candidate. The same anomaly can be found on dating websites, where a person’s stated preferences regarding other races may be at odds with her revealed preferences. One of the “quants” from the Obama campaign helpfully suggested adding the survey question, “Are you a racist?” Eventually they found a more subtle way to broach this volatile topic: “Do you think your neighbors would be willing to vote for an African-American for president?” The data showed that those who answered “no” were more likely to vote for McCain.

“Victory Lap” contains no discussion of the ethics or the broader impact of the various levers pulled to generate votes, such as politicizing images of Sept. 11 or of threatening to expose non-voters in the local newspaper, as the Obama campaign reportedly did in 2012. The greater good of winning the election seems to overwhelm everything else. One suspects that political consultants of the future will be touting “mass hypnosis,” “kino” and other techniques borrowed from late-night infomercials for “speed seduction.”

While campaigns spend millions trying to understand the causes of voter apathy, they never seem to consider their own culpability in the process, such as the millions spent or wasted on negative ads. Even this limitation could be overlooked if the book had a few withering anecdotes about Hillary Clinton or John McCain, as can be found in the book “Game Change” by political journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. Instead “The Victory Lab” is just one more byproduct of the shallow marketing culture it describes – a lot of sizzle, not much steak.

Liam O’Neill ( is an associate professor of Health Systems at the University of North Texas in Fort Worth.