Ahead of the Midterms, GOP Operatives Are Obsessively Studying a Book About the Obama Campaign

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Drunk on knowledge.Photo: Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images

According to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, conservatives have given up on facts and numbers-driven analysis — even when it comes to winning elections. They don't have the left's taste for rigorous analysis, to Krugman's eye, because it too often yields results that don't mesh with their ideology. Dubbing the effect the "wonk gap," Krugman defines it "as the G.O.P.’s near-complete lack of expertise on anything substantive," from budget issues to national security to poll analysis. 

In a town where careers and fortunes depend on winning at the polls, it's the equivalent of saying that half the city is self-destructively insane. 

But anyone keeping a close eye on summer reading trends in Washington would know that Krugman is a bit off base — at least the part about polls and elections. While the media focused on Mark Leibovich’s frothy gossip festival This Town as the Beltway's favorite summer read, Republican operatives looking ahead to 2014 were finally embracing an extremely wonky book about how the Obama campaign revolutionized the science of modern elections.

When Sasha Issenberg's The Victory Lab, an insider's guide to the pivotal statistical concepts and methods behind the vaunted Obama data machine, first came out at the height of the presidential campaign, many on the right rejected it with an allergic ferocity. Top Romney digital operatives told me on a Boston visit last year that his geek squad was evenly matched technologically with their opponents'. (They weren't, as the "ORCA" election night debacle proved.) In a typical dismissal, RedState.Com founder Ben Domenech mocked Issenberg as “perpetually amazed” by Obama and doubted that his campaign's microtargeting would work.  

One year later, after a period of mourning and introspection over how they could have been so blindsided — and egged on by told-ya-so GOP digital operatives — the Republican Party is trying to learn how to stop worrying and love the non-partisan truths of modern campaigning. And they seem to have embraced Issenberg as a spirit guide. A few months ago, he was summoned to meet with Republican House Leader Eric Cantor, who quizzed him about how the Obama campaign played with language to woo Romney voters. Shortly thereafter, the House Republican Conference* ordered Republican House chiefs of staff to read the book in preparation for a summer digital training session. “[T]he metric-based evaluation methods in this  book can be applied to the official side to help your office better communicate with constituents in your district,” the conference's digital director, Tim Cameron, wrote in an e-mail to the chiefs of staff.

At the Republican National Committee annual meetings in Boston last month, copies of The Victory Lab were ubiquitous, toted around by GOP strategists and aides in the midst of midterm campaign prep. ("Many of us have read The Victory Lab," Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for the RNC, said in an e-mail.) Though he declines all partisan speaking invites, Issenberg has been heavily sought as a speaker at GOP events — including at the Republican Governors Association “tech summit” in Mackinac, Michigan, later this month.

"The Victory Lab is going to have to be read and understood by people if we’re going to win,” said GOP operative Vince Harris, the 25-year-old who helmed digital strategy for Ted Cruz — once a long-shot tea partier, today junior Senator from Texas — and is now head of online operations for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s reelection bid. “One quote in the book from some Republican sticks out that I’ve used again and again: ‘We base our decisions on our gut and not on fact,’” he told me. “That summarized where Republican politics still sits today.” Another operative who works with prominent GOP clients, Bill Caspare of the New York–based political and corporate data-mining firm Collective, bought 50 copies: “Sasha pulled back the curtains. Political campaigns have always been about math — how many votes do you need, how am I gonna get ‘em — but now we can give it a much higher and more sophisticated level. That’s what the book addresses.” 

Issenberg had extraordinary access to the Obama campaign — Obama chief analytics officer Dan Wagner told me that Issenberg was “the one journalist who got it right” — and was able to provide details on the ways it tested the efficacy of various forms of communication, the use of Facebook to create social pressure to register, and vote and voter modeling. All of it now helps explain enduring mysteries of the campaign to many Romney aides, from why Wagner changed nothing after Obama’s disastrous first debate performance to what the Obama camp was doing running TV ads in such GOP strongholds as the Florida-Alabama border. 

Even as the paperback edition of The Victory Lab emerges this month with a 2012 postmortem epilogue, the hardcover — which had six printings — climbed back into the top twenty in several categories on Amazon in August. 

Issenberg, who has since moved on to a book on the gay-marriage movement, is gratified and bemused by the GOP’s better-late-than-never embrace. “There was some idea last year among Republicans that they more or less had some version of parity with the left,” he says. “They didn’t know what they didn’t know, so they dismissed it as that some arcane little book about technical stuff."

* Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated who ordered chiefs of staff to read the book. It was the House Republican Conference, not Rep. Cantor's office.