Obama Campaign Now Employing Jedi Mind Tricks

<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/barackobamadotcom/8072288318/sizes/z/in/photostream/">Barack Obama</a>/Flickr

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I wrote a long piece for the current issue of the magazine (on newstands now!) about the Obama re-election team’s efforts at constructing the “smart campaign.” The tl;dr version is that Chicago is using data-mining, analytics, and behavioral science to a degree that hasn’t been attempted before—all with the goals of squeezing their supporters for cash and volunteer hours and coaxing sympathetic voters to the polls.

One of the easiest ways to see this in action is through the fundraising emails the Obama campaign sends out, which vary substantially depending on the audience. ProPublica, which set out to track these emails last spring, found that a single pitch comes in no fewer than 11 different flavors. Any interaction you have with that an email—whether you responded with a donation, or whether you just clicked through at all—can be tracked by the campaign. That helps them learn a little bit about you, but it also helps them learn a little bit about themselves; they can send out blasts to randomized samples to determine what works and what doesn’t.

And now, with four weeks to go until election day, here’s the latest pitch I received in my inbox, nominally from the campaign’s COO, Ann Marie Habershaw:

Supporter ID number? Passive-aggressive receipt? Sounds like a Jedi mind trick.

Or maybe it’s just behavioral science—something Democratic groups have been experimenting with increasingly through the work of the electioneering think-tank, the Analyst Institute. As Sasha Issenberg chronicles in his new book, Victory Lab, in 2010 Democrats sent out mailers to Colorado Democrats in advance of the midterm election, thanking them personally for voting in 2008—and then thanking them in advance for voting in 2010. The passive-aggressive mailers boosted turnout among recipients by 2.5 percent. As Issenberg puts it, they were “designed to push buttons that many voters didn’t even know they had.”

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