Eggheads: The Secret Source of Democratic Campaign Success

Sasha Issenberg is the author of The Victory Lab, a book about the increasing use of social science experiments to improve the effectiveness of political campaigns. The first big-name politician to really make use of this was Rick Perry, but since then it’s been almost exclusively a Democratic phenomenon. Dylan Matthews asks why:

ISSENBERG: The reason Perry developed that partnership is that he made them an unusual offer, which is that they could publish their work. Most campaigns want to keep it proprietary, so the academics who are willing to work with them are often people who are aligned with their political goals, and not necessarily in it for research purposes.

Hmmm. According to Issenberg, Democrats faced a crisis in 2004 that motivated them to figure out how to run their campaigns better. But that’s not all. They also found it pretty easy to find plenty of eager help within academia:

The left has been way better than the right at engaging the political scientists and economists who use these techniques to measure real-world cause and effect. You just have dozens of professors and graduate students who want to work with Democratic campaigns, women’s groups and labor groups, and very little of that on the right.

….The fact that Republicans lost so overwhelmingly in 2008, I think, delayed an awareness of the technical gap between the two sides….For the sake of innovation on the Republican side, the best thing that could happen to them is that they lose narrowly on Tuesday, that the story becomes how Obama and his allies ran a mechanically superior campaign.

….That’s the first step. The second step is finding social scientists who want anything to do with the Republican party in the 21st century, and that probably won’t be solved on Tuesday one way or the other. That’s a bigger cultural problem.

So there really are advantages to being (a) reality-based and (b) non-troglodytes. This is, truly, the revenge of the nerds.


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2019 demands.

We Recommend


Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.


We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.