Electing a 21st century president

The elements of a modern American presidential campaign: Obama remains in pole position  

Barack Obama is the short priced favourite to win the Presidential election in 2012. It gives me no pleasure to say this but even with all the disasters that surround him, he is still no worse than line ball with every possible Republican who might take the field against him. There is only one person on the Republican side that I think of having a chance to win, and that is Rick Perry, the Texas Governor. 

There are many things that reassure me about Rick Perry as he tries to secure the Republican nomination for President but amongst these this is amongst the most significant: 

While Perry’s missteps during his first 10 days on the trail don’t necessarily show it, the reality is much more disciplined, as Sasha Issenberg documents in a new e-book chapter, ‘Rick Perry and His Eggheads: Inside the Brainiest Political Operation in America.’ 

Issenberg documents how Perry’s longtime political guru, Dave Carney, used research by a pair of Yale professors to rethink campaign strategy, brushing aside traditional campaign methods based on meticulous polling and research on what actually works. 

‘This is an organization that is built on a real, rigorous skepticism about how campaigns work,’ Issenberg told us on ABC’s ‘Top Line’ today. ‘They’re ready to question everything.’… 

Carney ran extensive field experiments – the ‘political-world version of pharmaceutical trials,’ Issenberg said – to test what types of advertising and retail politicking has the biggest impact. 

‘He’d grown just kind of skeptical of everything a campaign did,’ Issenberg said of Carney, who’s serving as Perry’s chief strategist on his presidential bid. ‘He didn’t really know what worked, and was looking for tools that would allow him to measure effectiveness.’ 

Obama ought to be unelectable given the last two and a half years. But he has a natural constituency on the left and amongst the welfare-recipient class, a class that is of formidable size and growing. He then also has the overwhelming support of the mainstream media which will suppress any negatives and highlight every positive. This same media will do exactly the reverse for whomever the Republicans finally nominate. It will not matter who it is. 

Even so, with things the way they are, Obama ought to lose, and lose heavily. But politics is a game of perception with reality a far distant second cousin. We who read and write about politics pay much closer attention to these things than do the bulk of a population who have an intermittent interest at best. Wander into a magazine shop one day and see what proportion of all of the magazines on sale deal with politics and social issues. That would be about the right proportion of the entire population actively interested in such things. Not many, is it? 

What had turned me into heavy duty concern that Obama and his strategy team were miles ahead of the game was a paragraph in a story by the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan. Noonan had been a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and knows a thing or two about running a Presidential campaign. But in a story that was otherwise about how disliked Obama is even by his supporters, there was this: 

The other day a Republican political veteran forwarded me a hiring notice from the Obama 2012 campaign. It read like politics as done by Martians. The ‘Analytics Department’ is looking for ‘predictive Modeling/Data Mining’ specialists to join the campaign’s ‘multi-disciplinary team of statisticians,’ which will use ‘predictive modeling’ to anticipate the behavior of the electorate. ‘We will analyze millions of interactions a day, learning from terabytes of historical data, running thousands of experiments, to inform campaign strategy and critical decisions.’ 

Computer chess programs can now beat the human world champions almost ten times out of ten. They never forget, they never make mistakes and they never get tired. They can also see a hundred moves ahead. The Obama campaign is now run by people with an astonishing ability to analyse an immense quantum of social data through the most upscale and modern statistical techniques. Through the use of those statistical programs they are able to design a campaign that will zero in on the most effective campaign structure and message that will draw the highest number of votes. In this way they too can see, politically speaking, a hundred moves ahead. 

I hear commentators all over the place looking at poll numbers and at Obama’s performance as President who think it’s all over. The consensus is forming that Obama is now in a losing position and is making mistake after mistake. This is something that never crosses my mind. Obama is a formidable orator and behind him is one of the most sophisticated campaign teams in history. Whatever it is he does is being calibrated by some very shrewd political minds aided by the most sophisticated political analysis ever designed. There has been a method in his madness at every step of the way. 

We already know of the astonishing ability Obama has had in gathering in money. No one could come close during the last election and there is no reason to think he will not outdistance everyone else in bringing in money once again. 

But even more important is the question of campaign strategy. Who knows what to do to bring in those votes? Nothing is obvious to me, and I suspect even the pros, the ones who have been doing it for years using rules of thumb that have seemed effective in the past, know less than they think. 

The article on Perry is titled, “‘Rick Perry and His Eggheads’ – ‘Moneyball’ Meets Campaigning”. Moneyball is the title of a book about a baseball manager in the major leagues in the United States who used statistical techniques to trade for players who had been systematically undervalued by their original clubs. And even though his was near enough the lowest paid club in baseball, his teams would succeed at the very highest level, year after year. 

As in baseball so now in politics. The old rules of thumb, the pre-megastatistical ways of doing things, are a thing of the past. If you depend on them, you are utterly lost. Obama’s strategy team understands this. They were able to bring an untried, inexperienced and ultra-left candidate into the Presidency. These people knew something that even the best political minds in the Republican Party did not. 

How they did it is an unknown. But anyone who can analyze millions of interactions a day, learn from terabytes of historical data by running thousands of experiments, and in this way inform campaign strategy and critical decisions, anyone who can do all of this is a very long way forward so far as understanding how Presidents in the twenty-first century get elected. 

Rick Perry also seems to understand this is how things must be done. On pure policy issues, I have not seen or heard anything that disappoints me. He seems to represent the kinds of approach I am looking for to turn the problems of America around. But what is more important is that he also seems to have the kind of campaign infrastructure that will be needed to defeat Obama. 

It is a hard road to the Presidency. First we will see if Perry can win his own Party’s nomination. And then if he does, we will see if he can win the Presidency after that. But at least with Perry in the race, there does seem to be someone in place who understands what needs to be done.

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