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Politics by the Book


By Mary Daily

Published Dec 12, 2012 3:14 PM


Photo by: sskennel.

It's nothing new for politicians to consult academics for information regarding polling or policy matters. But now candidates are looking to social scientists for tips on how to psyche out and influence voters.

The roots of this practice date to 1998, says Daron Shaw '88, M.A.'90, Ph.D.'94, political scientist at the University of Texas, when labor unions decided to stop raising money for candidates and instead start knocking on doors. The personal contact with voters proved effective. "Many people think that's how Gore won the popular vote in 2000," says Shaw, who was a consultant on the campaigns of both George Bushes.

Then in 2008 and 2012, the candidates raised so much money that they could afford to experiment, says Lynn Vavreck, associate professor of political science and communications studies at UCLA and director of the Center for the Study of Campaigns. So the Obama campaigns, especially, began testing what worked, down to which email subject lines prompted the most click-throughs.

But UCLA psychologist Craig Fox, who organized the consortium of behavioral scientists that advised Obama's 2012 campaign, says funding wasn't really the driver. His group didn't charge a fee. "The Obama camp was receptive to new ideas," he says. "In previous election cycles, we had to sell ourselves, This time, we received invitations to contribute."

Obama's commitment to the scientific methods was "pretty spectacular," says Shaw, adding that's it's easier for Democrats than Republicans to find allies among political scientists, where donkeys outnumber elephants four to one. And since the President didn't have to compete in a primary, there was more time to focus on these methods, he says.

Many techniques the scholars recommend, for what Fox terms "evidence-based politics," are common in industry. For example, Vavreck points to how hotels post signs in guest rooms claiming that many guests don't ask for clean towels every day. In response, new arrivals are more likely to follow suit, since there is a human tendency to conform to the group.

In campaigning, that translates into volunteers informing voters that their neighbors have committed to voting. "Very few things dislodge people from their party identification," Vavreck says. So it's important to persuade those already on your side to actually vote.

Through emails and conference calls, the academics advised the Obama camp on how to combat false rumors, like that he was a Muslim or not born in the U.S. (the best way: counter with a competing claim) and how to rally voters.

Fox is careful to stress that his political work, a form of "extra-curricular entrepreneurship" is completely separate from his faculty role. "I work hard to keep politics out of my teaching," he says. "But what I am openly interested in is applying behavioral science to smarter policymaking." To that end, he is co-editing a new journal, Behavioral Science and Policy, scheduled to appear by the end of 2013.