How Did Academics Apply Expertise to Obama’s Campaign?

The task of pulling off a win for President Barack Obama involved more than just the usual suspects found around political campaigns. In addition to people running donor relations and those in charge of setting up the vaunted Obama ground game were social sciences experts like Los Angeles-area psychologist Craig Fox and a group of unpaid volunteers from the field of behavior science, all helping Obama craft and effectively deliver a message that would deliver him a second term in the White House.

The New York Times details the work of the group, whose members referred to themselves as the “consortium of behavioral scientists” or COBS. Together members came up with good ways to counter rumors that had been dogging the President since his 2008 campaign: that he was a secret Muslim, that he wasn’t born in the United States, and the false impression formed around the key policy victory of his administration – “Obamacare.”

COBS also used their expertise to help those crafting attack messages on Obama’s Republican opponent, former Governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney. They provided insight into what kind of messaging would work best to mobilize Democratic voters and bring them to the polls.

“In the way it used research, this was a campaign like no other,” said Todd Rogers, a psychologist at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a former director of the Analyst Institute. “It’s a big change for a culture that historically has relied on consultants, experts and gurulike intuition.”

Those looking for insight into the role played by the researchers have to look for answers somewhere other than the Obama campaign. Attempts to get a comment about the help provided by the COBS from the campaign spokesman Adam Fetcher resulted in nothing but reassurances that the campaign was grateful to everyone who provided aid. Aside from Fox, COBS themselves are not interested in touting their accomplishments. According to The Times, when asked, consortium members said they did nothing more than share their research with the campaign staff.

Dr. Fox called the collection of academics making up COBS “a dream team,” and said that they provided hints in how to make common aspects of human behavior work for the campaign.

For example, Dr. [Susan] Fiske’s research has shown that when deciding on a candidate, people generally focus on two elements: competence and warmth. “A candidate wants to make sure to score high on both dimensions,” Dr. Fiske said in an interview. “You can’t just run on the idea that everyone wants to have a beer with you; some people care a whole lot about competence.”

Fiske, of Princeton University, was one of the members of the consortium.

One of the hints provided by the scientists was that to counter a false rumor, it was more effective to affirm the opposite of what the rumor was claiming than attempting to repeatedly deny it. That is why it was common to hear President Obama affirm his Christian faith rather saying that he was not, in fact, a Muslim.

At least some of the consortium’s proposals seemed to have found their way into daily operations. Campaign volunteers who knocked on doors last week in swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Nevada did not merely remind people to vote and arrange for rides to the polls. Rather, they worked from a script, using subtle motivational techniques that research has shown can prompt people to take action.

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