Schaeffer says experimentation can boost GOP campaigns, if only his side was more willing to… Adam Schaeffer is the director of research and co-founder of the Republican firm Evolving Strategies.C&E: Where are Republicans when it comes to testing and experimentation after the 2012 cycle? How do campaigners on your side tend to view it?
Schaeffer: We’ve advanced maybe five percent on this from 2012. Maybe it’s a little bit more, but there’s a long way to go. There has been a lot of talk about it, but it’s a radical change in perspective that took a long time to sink in, even on the left. Outside groups adopted it much more quickly than the campaign world—the unions, EMILY’s List or similar outside organizations.
Campaigns are just their own thing. There’s more tradition, they’re faster paced and they disband almost immediately. So for all those reasons it hasn’t gone nearly as far as I thought it would by this point. Even on the data structure side, we need to get the basics nailed down. A lot of people are of chasing shiny new objects like consumer data, but the core of the voter file isn’t where it should be or could be.
C&E: What did you learn from the experiments your firm did over the last cycle?
Schaeffer: Well, this wasn’t a complete surprise, but we found differences between men and women in their reactions to get out the vote in a persuasion context. It was surprising to us just how extensive we found those differences. We also found negative impacts in terms of persuasion and get out the vote where you wouldn’t expect it at all based on the message. I think this is actually a huge blind spot in politics. I don’t hear the Democrats talking about this very much and I don’t really see much in the academic literature. People often think in terms of whether something is effective or ineffective. Well, it could be that something is not just ineffective, but it could actually have a huge negative impact on what you’re campaign is doing. I’m certain from what we found that there are plenty that campaigns and political organizations do that’s actually hurting their cause, but they don’t even realize it. You’re not just wasting money in this case, you’re spending money to hurt yourself. There’s an enormous amount of dead weight in campaigns. There are plenty of things that are not impacting people at all. If you can find those sweet spots in terms of get out the vote and in terms of your messaging, you can do a tremendous amount.
C&E: How do you pitch the experimentation piece for campaigns?
Schaeffer: It’s difficult. A lot of times there’s a notion they’re already doing this to some degree—polling, focus grouping, or even match control cases where they will do one thing in one precinct and something different in another. That’s certainly a lot better than not doing anything at all, but it’s dangerous because if you have small numbers and you’re matching things, bias creeps in. That can make all the difference. Experiments are deceptively simple. The concept is really easy to understand. But when you get down to what you are testing and then down to the analysis, it’s more complex. We always look at subgroup impacts. For example, do people who live with a Democrat in the household respond differently to something than people who live in an all-independent household? This is another area where we can advance. I know in academia there’s not much of this type of analysis. They tend to focus on the whole group average. Sometimes they only look at analyzing single-voter households.
C&E: And campaigns are often wary of anything that might seem too academic.
Schaeffer: When we’re pitching this to people, they’re either ready for it or they’re not. If they are, they immediately get it. It may be that something about the message or the strategy has been bugging them and yet they’re still spending a bunch of money on it. Or maybe it’s someone who lost a race and said, “Maybe we should have done something else.” Everyone has been in a room where two people have equally plausible arguments about why a campaign should absolutely do one thing over another. I think it’s more about finding the right fit. People have to understand this isn’t magic; it’s basic science. This is the same thing used for drug trials. Experimentation is what has built all of the technology we have currently, and we bring it to the practice of politics in a rigorous way, along with the behavioral aspect. We often find we’re not selling this as much as we are explaining it to people and showing campaigns how they can use it. The biggest hurdle can be selling people on a particular project. There are almost an infinite number of things to test, and there are different modes of contact and spending.
C&E: How much are you able to have experiments contained within a campaign so the results can actually inform the strategy or approach?
Schaeffer: GOTV experiments are obviously not really helpful within the context of a single campaign. We have had interest in conducting GOTV experiments in special elections where people mainly wanted to learn from it after the fact. If it’s an outside organization, they obviously have an interest beyond that single election, so that’s something of interest to them. For campaigns, it’s more the persuasion tests. And we can do this quickly. Sometimes it’s just difficult to figure out what a campaign wants to test. The connection between persuasion and get out the vote is a big one. In the short term, most of the value and impact any persuasion message is going to have is not necessarily taking voters from one side to the other, but mainly it’s convincing those marginal voters—the ones who may be leaning toward your opponent. I think the Democrats did that consciously with Romney voters.
The Obama folks knew that a lot of the people they were advertising to would never vote for their candidate, but not voting at all is a legitimate choice. People on both sides throw around the idea of vote suppression really easily. In my mind, vote suppression is lying to people or tricking them. Certainly there are folks who feel like a lot of the claims made about Romney were in that category, but a persuasive message that demobilizes the other side—that’s legitimate. There are a lot of people who don’t vote, and they don’t vote for legitimate reasons. So the connection between persuasion and get out the vote is big and it’s something that might be in the back of the minds of a lot of campaigns professionals, but I think it needs to be much more explicit.
C&E: Do you expect to see some sort of coordinated effort on the Republican side to invest in this sort of testing and experimentation in the near future?
Schaeffer: Maybe. To a certain extent, we would love to be that node in terms of disseminating things. I don’t know that we need something so central like the Analyst Institute, however. I also don’t know that it will develop that way on our side. It might just be a greater adoption of these techniques by companies and organizations over time. It’s just tough to tell, but I don’t think it’s necessary to really have a clearinghouse. The key is that we can disseminate information across channels. It’s the same thing with the whole data structure on the left—it got centralized quite quickly and it worked really well for them. There’s a lot of value in that, because you can get all your ducks in a row and perhaps leap ahead more quickly. I don’t know if that’s going to happen on the right. Maybe I’ll be surprised, but there are a lot of outside projects in terms of data. In a way it’s frustrating that we might be recreating the wheel, but it’s never really a bad thing to not have your eggs all in one basket.
C&E: Is the data piece of this a task that’s better suited for the party or for outside entities?
Schaeffer: I think there’s a real value in having tension between them. I wish we were further advanced than we are in both areas. The party organizations touch so many campaigns that it makes sense for them to do some basic stuff, especially with the voter file. Then again, information is getting cheaper. It’s now cheaper to obtain it, process it and utilize it. So I think we’re going to see something develop that’s an interplay between the parties and the outside groups. But we’re going to need multiple nodes for people to tap into.
C&E: What are you seeing on the digital side? Are campaigns actually changing their spending habits?
Schaeffer: Digital is just one aspect of what we need to do better. One of the problems is that there’s not enough clarity on what it works for and how to use digital dollars in the most efficient way. On the Democratic side I know they’ve done a lot of testing, but it changes so quickly and there are so many possibilities. You have pre-roll, Facebook, Google ads and all sorts of different platforms. It’s just more difficult to get on top of and systematically figure out where the best place to spend your money is. It’s also easy to ignore anything online that you don’t have an interest in, which is often the problem when we’re talking about political communication. How far can you go in forcing people to see a piece of information or reading something that they don’t want to? The trick is how to get them interested.