Academic ‘Dream Team’ Helped Obama’s Effort
By Benedict Carey
Late last year Matthew Barzun, an official with the Obama campaign, called Craig Fox, a psychologist in Los Angeles, and invited him to a political planning meeting in Chicago, according to two people who attended the session.
Off topic, but in case you are wondering, from Wikipedia:
Matthew Barzun is a descendent of John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts, and Lucretia Mott, a proponent of women`s rights. … Matthew Barzun’s grandfather is the renowned French-born American cultural historian and former Columbia University professor, Jacques Martin Barzun [who recently died at 104].
“He said, ‘Bring the whole group; let’s hear what you have to say,’ ” recalled Dr. Fox, a behavioral economist at the University of California, Los Angeles.
So began an effort by a team of social scientists to help their favored candidate in the 2012 presidential election. Some members of the team had consulted with the Obama campaign in the 2008 cycle, but the meeting in January signaled a different direction.
“The culture of the campaign had changed,” Dr. Fox said. “Before then I felt like we had to sell ourselves; this time there was a real hunger for our ideas.”
This election season the Obama campaign won a reputation for drawing on the tools of social science. The book “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 intuition.” …
In addition to Dr. Fox, the consortium included Susan T. Fiske of Princeton University; Samuel L. Popkin of the University of California, San Diego; Robert Cialdini, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University; Richard H. Thaler, a professor of behavioral science and economics at the University of Chicago’s business school; and Michael Morris, a psychologist at Columbia.
It`s useful to have bright people in your campaign whose salaries are being paid for by the taxpayers or wealthy institutions.
“A kind of dream team, in my opinion,” Dr. Fox said.
He said that the ideas the team proposed were “little things that can make a difference” in people’s behavior.
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.”
Yup, you`d need some real geniuses to figure that out.
Most of the behavioral science breakthroughs in the article don`t seem all that brilliant, but, one way or another, Team Obama outperformed Romney`s hired guns. The daughters of the consultants Romney hired will no doubt have lovely weddings someday courtesy of the amount of cash that flowed in 2012.
There are a couple of issues for Republicans: one is that when you outsource everything, you often get taken to the cleaners. The other is the lack of institutional intellect. I often joke about the Republican Brain Trust, but, it`s serious: the Republican strategists aren`t that bright. You need academics, you need sabermetricians, you need guys who like numbers, not just the numbers in their bank accounts.