Journalist Explores Perry's Electoral Successes

Scientists analyze patterns in all areas of life, from weather to health, to help predict outcomes. Journalist Sasha Issenberg examines how political scientists employed by the Texas gubernatorial campaign of Rick Perry in 2006 helped him strategize through testing random samples of voters. Robert Siegel talks with Issenberg about this approach — and how it shaped Perry's subsequent campaigns.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: There's a new book coming about from journalist and author Sasha Issenberg about how elections are won. And the first chapter to be released recounts an interesting episode in Rick Perry's long story of electoral successes in Texas. It's all about Perry's 2006 re-election campaign for governor.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

SIEGEL: I've never been more proud to call myself a Texan. In Texas, we set the national standard for economic development. We've gained 300,000 new jobs, and lawsuit reform is bringing better health care to millions. We've invested 10 billion new dollars in our public schools, while improving standards, accountability and student performance. Our people are compassionate, our visions bold, our values strong. The best is yet to come. I'm proud of Texas, How about you?

Well, this story is not about the substance of Rick Perry's claims. It's about the campaign that Sasha Issenberg calls The Brainiest Political Operation in America: Rick Perry and His Eggheads. This is in his forthcoming book, "The Victory Lab."

Sasha Issenberg, welcome to the program.

SASHA ISSENBERG: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And explain who the so-called eggheads were who worked for Rick Perry in his 2006 campaign.

ISSENBERG: This is four academics led by a pair of guys from Yale, these political scientists who basically introduced randomized field experiments to politics in the late '90s. And Dave Carney, who was Rick Perry's top political adviser, decided that if you brought these guys into the campaign, they could effectively measure things that had never been measured before. And they enlisted two sort of more conservative academics to join them.

And Carney's invitation was you can impose these experimental controls on basically any aspect of the campaign, but that you can successfully randomize and measure.

SIEGEL: But for them to do this - and this began, I gather, with two pretty liberal political scientists from Yale - they would actually have to make decisions about what the campaign would do in different media markets in order to have adequate controls.

ISSENBERG: Right. And the two most sort of audacious experiments that they did were randomizing the candidate's travel around the state and his TV advertising buys for three weeks. And that ad that we heard was one that the campaign purchased time for over three weeks in January of 2006. And instead of putting it in markets where their polls told them that they should be buying ads, they assigned it randomly across 18 of Texas 20 media markets and were able to measure, in a very localized way, the effect that that specific ad had on Perry's poll numbers, on his volunteer signups and his campaign contributions in each city.

SIEGEL: So after they did randomized studies of whether television advertising in this media market or that media market, or direct mail or phone calls, if they actually push the needle on Perry's approvals or not, how different was the Perry campaign when all of this ended from the Perry campaign when it all began?

ISSENBERG: A lot. I mean, you know, there's a story I tell in the book about volunteers and activists coming into the headquarters in Austin, asking for lawn signs and being told there are no lawn signs. And...

SIEGEL: Sacrilege, there are no lawn signs.

ISSENBERG: And they think that their campaign is out of lawn signs, so when can I come back and get a lawn sign? There will never be lawn signs. And Dave Carney had decided that the campaign wasn't going to spend money on lawn signs. And if you looked at the budget in 2010, it looked dramatically different.

So there are tons of things that campaigns reflexively did in Texas because that's what campaigns do. And Perry basically cut them out of his operation because of some combination of the eggheads' findings and other research. So Perry did not do a single editorial board in Texas in 2010. From polling, they realized that Republican primary voters, in most cases, are no more likely to vote for the candidate who's endorsed. And in some cases, they actually say they're less likely.

And Carney looked and said it takes us half a day every time we want to prepare and travel to go do an editorial board in Abilene or El Paso. Basically phones and mail for most types of communications went away. And they became a lot more rigorous about how they bought television, because they had this idea that if you buy a TV ad in June thinking that it's going to mean anything in November, you're probably wrong.

SIEGEL: What they did do was send Governor Perry out around the state to make a lot of personal appearances and to visit cities throughout the state.

ISSENBERG: Right. They realized that even if, you know, it's a small crowd in person and it's put together quickly, that the value of having him physically doing an event in a city is probably the best use of his time, short of raising more money for the campaign. And almost everything came to be structured around how do we put Rick Perry in front of people in parts of the state where we want to have an impact, and almost everything else became secondary.

SIEGEL: And they showed that if he went to a given place, he'd probably get some news coverage in that city and his numbers would go up in that place.

ISSENBERG: And the news coverage would be a lot more generous when it was covered by the TV stations and newspapers in that market than when they were relying on statewide reporters to do it.

SIEGEL: Sasha Issenberg, thanks a lot for talking with us.

ISSENBERG: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: The forthcoming book by Sasha Issenberg is called "The Victory Lab." But the chapter that has been released in an e-book sneak preview is called "Rick Perry and His Eggheads: The Brainiest Political Operation in America."

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