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Can the “Moneyball effect” actually save American politics?

The way we conduct political campaigns has changed drastically over the last two decades. Today, political campaigns spend three times as much money and use much more sophisticated data and media tools. They also have an alarming amount of information about voters.

Yet those extraordinary powers were mostly used not to engage in a more nuanced, persuasive public discourse, but rather to provoke outrage and election turnout. The way we campaign has been a big 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 could drag American politics back from the extremes and to a more reasonable center. The following transcript is summarized and lightly edited for clarity.

Listen to the full conversation here:

This country spent $ 14 billion on elections in the 2020 cycle. Campaigns have mostly raised that money through an avalanche of negative messages aimed at their activist core. What was the effect of all these negative fundraising messages? Does it drive our political polarization?

The problem in politics is that negativity is what draws you in. Everyone wants to say “I just want positive ads.” The problem is, it does not work. That’s why the industry has gone so negatively. It responds to where the market is. Nowadays we have the tools to find out which [fundraising] email works, which tweets get the most virality. And we know that negativity sells stronger than positivity.

This leads to greater polarization. It also leads to people just falling completely out of politics. But it also attracts more people to give money, to be angry, to do more posts on social media and to be more activist.

Is it that polarization leads to campaign tactics, or that campaign tactics drive polarization?

I think politics [and campaign tactics] drove the polarization. We have choices in every business. If you’m McDonald’s, do you wake up every day and want Burger King to kick the shit out, or do you want to talk about how delicious your latest chicken sandwich is? You have choices. And the people who run campaigns need to have more balance. If you decide that you’re just going to destroy the other side to get to 50% plus one and win the race, then that’s fine. But when you’re in the office, you’re not going to get things done. And that’s what’s happening right now. People think no further than the campaign. They only think of victory. To some extent, I think it really comes down to those of us involved in saying no to candidates.

How is the amount of information that campaigns have about voters included?

The problem is that you can go to Facebook and other platforms and find out exactly who to target. You can choose to advertise to people who may be most convinced by your message, or to those who are most activated by your message. But that makes it too easy on campaigns. That means they do not have to talk to someone who may 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 to bother persuading someone.

In your book, you’re the first person to come up with a new idea about a kind of “Moneyball” effect that might be on the horizon for politics. There is an undervalued segment to check, and can it save us?

I predict in the book that we have become so good at pulling out our own base – and pissing it off the other side – that campaigns will eventually reach the maximum they can do with it. And then there really is only one thing left: to go to that 10% to 15% in the middle. The way we are going to win these marginal, competitive elections and gain control over some of these legislators is therefore in the middle. This will be the premium we go for.

What’s more interesting is that those people [in the middle] respond to positive messages over negative. They respond to more personal messages rather than just red versus blue. And that is the hope. Campaigns that say “I do not want to destroy democracy, but I also want to win” will strive to fight for the middle ground. The presidential level will figure it out, and then everyone else will copy it. One of the few good things about all the money raised these days is that it gives money to go down a little more in the middle, instead of just taking the easy stuff on the left or right.

To hear more about how to address problems in the foster care system, watch the full episode of Beyond Politicss on appeal, Spotify, Google, Anchor, Breker, Bag, RadioPubliek, or Stitcher, and sign in.

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