The way we run political campaigns has changed drastically in the last two decades. Today, political campaigns spend three times more money and leverage far more sophisticated data and media tools. They also have an unnerving amount of information on voters.
Yet those extraordinary powers have mostly been used not to have a more nuanced, persuasive public conversation, but rather to stoke outrage and election turnout. The way we run campaigns has been a huge factor in how angry, divided, and dysfunctional our country is.
But on the Beyond Politics Podcast with Matt Robison, guest Michael Cohen – author of Modern Political Campaigns – argues that a “Moneyball”-like search for smarter ways to win might actually drag American politics back away from the extremes and toward a more reasonable center. The following transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Listen to the full conversation here:
This country spent $14 billion in the 2020 cycle on elections. Campaigns raised that money mostly through a barrage of negative messages aimed at their activist core. What has the effect been of all of this negative fundraising messaging? Is it driving some of our political polarization?
The problem in politics is that negative is what pulls you in. Everyone wants to say “I just want positive ads.” The problem is, it doesn’t work. So that’s why the industry has gone so negative. It’s responding to where the market is. Nowadays we have the tools to figure out which [fundraising] email works, which tweets are getting the most virality. And we know that negativity sells stronger than positivity.
That is leading to greater polarization. It is also leading to people who are just dropping out of politics entirely. But it’s also pulling more people in to give money, to be angrier, to do more posts on social media, and to be more activist.
Is it that polarization leads to the campaign tactics, or that campaign tactics drives polarization?
I think the politics [and campaign tactics] has been driving the polarization. We have choices in every business. If you are McDonald’s, do you wake up every day wanting to beat the crap out of Burger King, or you want to talk about how tasty your newest chicken sandwich is? You have choices. And the people who run campaigns have to have more balance. If you decide that you’re going to just destroy the other side to get to 50% plus one and win the race, then fine. But when you’re in office, you’re not going to able to get things done. And that’s what’s happening right now. People are not thinking beyond the campaign. They’re just thinking about the win. To some extent, I think it really comes down to those of us who are involved in this saying no to candidates.
How does the amount of information that campaigns have about voters factor in?
The problem is that you can go into Facebook and other platforms and figure out so precisely whom to target. You could choose to advertise to people who might be most persuadable through your message, or to the ones most activated by your message. But that makes it too easy on campaigns. That means they don’t have to talk to anyone who might not agree with them. And in fact, campaigns have decided that it’s easier to just focus on getting their people out to vote, not bother persuading anyone.
In your book, you are the first person who’s expressed a novel idea about a sort of “Moneyball” effect that may be on the horizon for politics. There’s an undervalued segment to go after, and that may save us?
I predict in the book that we have become so good at pulling out our own base – and pissing off the other side – that eventually campaigns will have maximized what they can do with that. And then there’s really only thing left: to go after that 10% to 15% in the middle. So the way we’re going to win these marginal, competitive elections and to win control over some of these legislatures is right there in the middle. It will become the premium that we go after.
What’s more interesting is that those people [in the middle] respond to positive messages more than negative. They respond to more personal messages rather than just red versus blue. And that’s the hope. Campaigns that say “I don’t want to destroy democracy, but I also want to win” will look to fighting for the middle. The presidential level will figure it out, and then everyone else will copy it. One of the few good things about all the money that’s being raised these days is that it gives money to go down in the middle a little bit more, as opposed to just taking the easy stuff on the left or the right.
To hear more about how to address problems in the foster care system, check out the full episode of Beyond Politics on Apple, Spotify, Google, Anchor, Breaker, Pocket, RadioPublic, or Stitcher, and subscribe.
Matt Robison is a writer and political analyst who focuses on trends in demographics, psychology, policy, and economics that are shaping American politics. He spent a decade working on Capitol Hill as a Legislative Director and Chief of Staff to three Members of Congress, and also worked as a senior advisor, campaign manager, or consultant on several Congressional races, with a focus in New Hampshire. In 2012, he ran a come-from-behind race that national political analysts called the biggest surprise win of the election. He went on to work as Policy Director in the New Hampshire state senate, successfully helping to coordinate the legislative effort to pass Medicaid expansion. He has also done extensive private sector work on energy regulatory policy. Matt holds a Bachelor’s degree in economics from Swarthmore College and a Master’s degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He lives with his wife and three children in Amherst, Massachusetts.