Category Archives: United States Politics

Sasha Issenberg (author of “The Victory Lab: The secret science of winning campaigns”) speaks to the Samara Institute.

issenberg samara

I have been a fan of Sasha Issenberg for a while now, reading his articles on, enjoying him on the Slate Political Gabfest podcast and then devouring his fantastic book “The Victory Lab: The secret science of winning campaigns.” So when I heard that he was going to speak in Toronto at an event hosted by the Samara Institute I was thrilled. I strongly recommend reading his book.

Mr. Issenberg’s speech was excellent so I thought I would share some of the insight I gained from hearing the author speak after reading his book.

Before you continue read Adam Radwanski”s excellent interview with Sasha Issenberg: here.


The J-Source liveblog for The Victory Lab: an evening with Sasha Issenberg: here.


This great article by Susan Delacourt “Polling and journalism: the future is in the details”: here.

What I learned from Sasha Issenberg:

  •   It is important to remember that micro-targeting is really high concept stuff and only impacts around the margins. It is good for increasing voter turnout by a few percentage points in key areas (which can make all the difference in a close campaign.) 95% of people care about the same 4 things more or less (like the economy, health care, education, etc.)  There is diminishing returns from going too granular/micro in your targeting and messaging. Issenberg used the example that you could send every American a piece of direct mail about the local park in their community with Barack Obama’s campaign budget, but people vote on the economy not their local park. 
  • We know less about persuasion than we do about motivation. This was an important lesson for me from Sasha Issenberg’s talk. A lot of the sociological techniques/tricks/strategies that have been tested in randomized clinical trials were done for non-partisan, voter turnout increasing purposes. Academic research grants can’t go to Democratic/Republican efforts because of campaign finance laws. I asked Issenberg about using the methods described in his book to target low information voters and he was also asked about persuading voters to switch from one candidate to another. He told me that these methods are for increasing voter turn out and aren’t necessarily focused on educating voters. However, these techniques were effectively implemented by the Obama campaign to  activate certain issues (women’s health and access to abortion) among demographics that would have supported Romney (middle aged suburban women) but then switched to Obama when these issues were activated. As a Liberal, getting Liberal voters to turn out is a challenge in-and-of itself. Liberals should all read this book, but we need to put as much effort into persuading New Democrats, Conservatives and Greens as we put into Liberal GOTV.
  • Robocalls do not increase voter turnout.  According to Sasha Issenberg “They persist because campaigns don’t read political science literature.”  Campaigns spend money on robocalls because they have money at the end of the campaign and they don’t have enough time to hire new staff or produce effective t.v./radio advertisements. Campaigns don’t want leftover money at the end of a campaign because it would look like they didn’t spend the extra money because they weren’t trying. When Issenberg got the robocall question I don’t think he was aware of the special Canadian context. His straightforward, empirical answer on robocalls was refreshing. According to the evidence, they don’t increase voter turnout. Nothing beats a visit from a volunteer at the door. If you are going to use a phonebank, have volunteers use a “chatty” script.
  • Shame  is an extremely effective tool for increasing voter turnout. One of my favourite examples that Issenberg described was when a group decided to send people their voter history (which elections they had and hadn’t voted in) and the voting history of their neighbours. Recipients were also informed that also this information was publicly available and that they would receive an updated voter history after the election. This increased voter turnout by 20%.
  • Another surprisingly effective psychological technique was getting people to talk through their plan of how they’ll vote. By asking people at what time they will vote, what they will be doing before they vote,  and how they will travel to the polling station (and other questions like these) the recipients of the call were more likely to vote. This was even more effective among voters who live alone (the caller served as a surrogate for a spouse or partner.)
  • Good horse race coverage needs a lot more self-doubt. Reporters should admit what they do not know. Here is a great piece by Sasha Issenberg on why political reporters should work on political campaigns (Why Campaign Reporters Are Behind the Curve). If any reporter wants to come door knocking, envelope stuffing or debate live-tweeting with me, they have an open invitation.
  • We need constant innovation in campaigns. Political professionals need to think empirically and look outside of politics for effective techniques. There are many useful lessons in Mr. Issenberg’s book but there are many large and important differences between the American and Canadian political systems.

10 Ballot measures to Watch in Tonight’s U.S. election

Tonight President Barack Obama will be re-elected, Democrats will keep the Senate and for no apparent reason the Republicans will keep the House of Representatives for another 2 years. More awesomely, Wisconsin is going to elect America’s first openly gay Senator, Tammy Baldwin. As a politics nerd, I always like to watch a number of ballot measures (mostly because it lets me repeatedly use the plural “referenda” as much as humanly possible) because they can have as large/damaging/excellent effect as the Presidential ticket, and they can be really interesting/weird. Here are 10 measures to watch tonight:

Marriage Equality:

Maine, Maryland, Washington State and Minnesota all have same-sex marriage ballot initiatives  The first 3 have affirmative ones and Minnesota’s is to take away rights from same-sex couples by banning SSM. Tonight could be the first time same-sex marriage is approved by a popular vote. It is terrible that human rights are being put to a vote but these 4 states give me hope. Check out The Advocate for live coverage of all LGBTQ issues on election day.

Cannabis Legalization:

Colorado, Oregon and Washington all have ballot measures to legalize marijuana. All 3 states already have medicinal marijuana. These ballot measures have been polling positively in Washington State and Colorado, but surprisingly not in Oregon. The pro-legalization side in Colorado is called “The Colorado Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol” which is exactly how legalization advocates should make their case.

Death Penalty/3 Strikes Law in California: 

2 awesome ballot measures in California are 34 and 36. 34 would get rid of the death penalty in the state of California ( I don’t think this will pass but I’m still hopeful) and 36 will get rid of California’s “three strikes” law which has lead to California’s overcrowded prisons and has been devastating for those in California living in poverty. This is the kind of regressive legislation you could see Stephen Harper’s government putting forward and I’m glad it seems to be heading for repeal.

The Plutocrat and the Bridge:

Proposal 6 in Michigan could have a profound affect on Canadian-American relations. Proposal 6 would amend Michigan’s constitution, so that if the state ever wants to build a “new international bridge or tunnel,” the whole state–and each affected municipality–would have to first hold a referendum. The Ambassador Bridge (between Detroit and Windsor) is 85 years old and is owned by one man, Manuel  Moroun. Mr. Moroun is a billionaire trucking magnate and he doesn’t want a competing bridge.  Michigan’s Republican governor Rick Snyder (as well as Canada’s government) have come out strong against this ballot measure. It is bad for trade between Canada and the United States and is the perfect example of the new politics of plutocracy that seems to have taken over parts of the United States in the new post-Citizens United world.

It’ll probably be Portman

I don’t normally like to make predictions. Mostly because I don’t like being wrong on the record. However, I would like to predict that there is a good chance that Mitt Romney will pick Ohio Senator Rob Portman as his Vice-Presidential running mate.

Mitt Romney is not a gambler. He succeeded in business (not a positive value judgment, I think his time at Bain Capital was terrible) because he played it safe. His presidential campaign has been a case study in playing it safe.

Portman is the safe bet.

Reasons why I believe Mitt Romney will choose Rob Portman:

  • Ohio is a swing state.  Portman won in 2010 with a margin of 57 to 39 percent, winning 82 of Ohio’s 88 counties.
  • Portman speaks spanish.
  • Portman is extremely bland. Romney will not pick a running mate who outshines him.
  • Portman was a congressman, he was a U.S. trade representative, he served as Director of the Office of Management and Budget for President George Bush and he is now a Senator from a major state. He would automatically pass the media’s experience test. John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin in 2008 means that Romney will be picking in the Post-Palin context.

I am not unique in my belief that Senator Portman will be Romney’s V.P. choice. However, I do believe that Rob Portman has 3 large weaknesses that aren’t being discussed in articles speculation on Romney’s choice:

1. In the Senate, Portman voted for the Blunt-Rubio amendment. This was the most regressive anti-abortion amendment to be put forward in the decades that have passed since Roe. Portman doesn’t campaign like a Rick Santorum but he is not immune from the “war on women” narrative.

2. In the Senate, Portman voted for the Paul Ryan budget. Romney embraced the Paul Ryan plan to gut Medicare and kill Social Security but he never had to vote for it. The Ryan Plan is deservedly unpopular and Romney’s campaign has purposely avoided putting forward economic specifics. Portman’s vote would force Romney to get in to the weeds on the Ryan budget.

3. Rob Portman was Budget Director for President George W. Bush. He is quick to spin fiercely and take credit for the good economy he inherited from President Clinton. Romney’s entire campaign for the Republican nomination was based on repudiating the non-foreign policy legacy of President Bush. He relished being to the right of his opponents on immigration (an area where President Bush tried to work with Democrats.) Candidate Romney attacked his opponents for their votes on the debt ceiling and for supporting programs like “No Child Left Behind.” Though Portman was elected to the Senate in 2010, he can be tied to the Bush Presidency and he was in congress for more than half of Bush’s presidency.

President Obama Evolves on Marriage-Equality. Thankfully, Nobody Pressed “B.”

Mitt Romney reacts–if you wonder why he doesn’t try and slam President Obama for changing his position, it’s probably because he doesn’t believe in evolution and he would lose any “flip flopping” debate.

Someone needs to re-mix President Obama’s statement on marriage-equality like Will.I.Am did in 2008. Maybe Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber could collaborate?

Newark Mayor Cory Booker on Marriage Equality

Via The Daily Dish.

The Tea Party/OWS: The Musical (Spoliers)

I come from a very musical family (buy my sister’s band’s EP: The Prime Minister of Cool Chicks) and musical theatre has always been a big part of my life. One of my earliest memories is seeing a production of Brigadoon at the high school my father taught music at. In high school I performed in Jesus Christ Superstar, You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown and Les Miserables, and at U of T I helped produce (and appeared in) my favourite musical of all time, Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.

With my other obsession being politics I have been wanting to write about how two specific musicals, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson & Urinetown, should be watched by anyone trying to understand the Tea Party and Occupy movements in the United States. This evening I read an article on Fox News online that compared Newt Gingrich to President Andrew Jackson in a non-ironic, complimentary manner (whitewashing the fact that Newt Gingrich has never fought for his country and Andrew Jackson’s legacy of supporting slavery and wholesale slaughter of Native Americans.)

This article immediately made me think of ‘ Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’, a musical released in 2008 that made its Broadway premiere in 2010 that was written, in part, in response to The Tea Party.

In 2004, three years after ‘Urinetown’ premiered on Broadway, I saw a production at Canstage in Toronto. As I listen and re-listen to the soundtrack of Urinetown I am surprised by how well it presaged the Occupy Wall Street movement, not their methods but their critique of corporate control of politics, the disparity between the 99% and 1%, the societal divisions created by the politics of austerity and police reaction to large protest movements.

While BBAJ seems as manichean as the movement it comments on, Urinetown does an excellent job addressing the naivety/short-sightedness that mass movements predicated on distrust of all establishment entities sometimes suffer from.

“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and the Tea Party:

The style of this musical is as important as its subject matter. BBAJ is an “emo rock” musical. This is perfect for portraying the petulance and perpetual adolescence of the Tea Party. The show opens with “Populism Ya, Ya” which sets the stage for the political mindset in the U.S. at during “the age of Jackson” and in the Republican Party of today.

The most striking lyrics are:

Take a stand against the elite
They don’t care anything for us
And we will eat sweet democracy
And let them eat our dust,
Eat our dust, eat our dust

Cause it’s the early 19th century
We’ll take the land back from the indians
We’ll take the land back from the French and Spanish
And other people in other European countries
And other countries too
And also other places
I’m pretty sure it’s our land anyway.

The same faux-anger at a vague class of elites that is currently fueling New Gingrich’s campaign is what swept Andrew Jackson into power. Another parallel to the world of the musical and the TP is the underlying layer of racism and xenophobia that manifests itself in calls to “take America back” to a time that was as mythical in the 1820s as it is in 2012. With his constant usage of the term “food stamps President to describe Barack Obama and his anti-“European” rhetoric, Gingrich is playing the same kind of politics of fear as Andrew Jackson (though obviously less overtly racist.)

After “Populism, Ya Ya” the musical goes on to profile Andrew Jack’s frontier adolescence, a brief meeting with George Washington, his marriage to his wife Rachel and his frustration with the American governments failure, in his eyes, to defend the frontier and his rise as a military hero. Jackson’s time as Governor of Florida is hauntingly portrayed in the song “Ten Little Indians.” The 1824 election is wonderfully summarized by the song “The Corrupt Bargain.” This song is what initially attracted me to the musical. As a musical/history nerd, the fact that a comedic summary of the backroom deal that denied Jackson the Presidency on his first run existed in musical form seemed like it was written for me.

During the 1828, Jackson is seen as a Rock Star. When Jackson finally wins the Presidency he discovers, like the Tea Party Republicans elected in 2010, that governing is harder than he naively believed. The lyrics that most eloquently summarize the Tea Party after 2010:

“So we’ll ruin the bank, and we’ll trample the courts,
And we’ll take on the world for America’s sake.
And we’ll take all the land, and we’ll take back the country,
And we’ll take, and we’ll take, and we’ll take and we’ll take.

And this country I’m making cannot be divided,
The will of the people won’t stand in my way.
How can I tell you how deeply I’ll make them all bleed.

As Gingrich has made “taking on activist judges” a cornerstone of his anti-elite narrative, the parallel to Jackson is an obvious one. The more subtle element in this song, is how, just like the TP, once Jackson gained power he turned against democracy. Republicans took over a large number of state governments in 2010 and have been passing vote suppression laws all over the United States. This song does an excellent job portraying the selfish nature of the TP movement. Instead of saying “how can we expand pensions and strengthen workers’ rights?” the Tea Party has engaged in the politics of envy by pitting non-union workers against union members. Another parallel between Newt and Jackson, both the real and fictional, is their neoconservative foreign policy. When Gingrich goes after Ron Paul on Iran, he might as well say “We’ll take on the world for America’s sake.” The largest delusion of the Tea Party is that, though they are statistically white and wealthy, they speak for all Americans. When Andrew Jackson says “the band plays on” he means that America isn’t for everyone.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson does a superb job showing how the rage of a narrow group of individuals can propel a candidate into office and how the impossible, misguided and self-contradicting expectations of his supporters lead to a more divide and unequal America.


Unlike the Tea Party, the musical Urinetown is extremely self-aware. The musical seamlessly transitions between various musical styles and parodies. The show takes place in an unnamed American town in a postapocalyptic type future. There has been a 20 year drought and water is severely rationed. Private toilets have been outlawed and there is extreme punishment for those who don’t pay to use the privately owned toilet every day, “Urinetown.” It is revealed in the second act that, though the myth is that you are exiled to a fictitious place called Urinetown, the police simply murder you. All of the toilets are owned by a single megacorporation  called “Urine Good Company.” One of the first numbers of the show takes place in one of the poorest and filthiest public urinals.

Bobby Strong works at “Public Amenity #9.” His father, Joseph, asks the manager for a freebie and is rebuffed by her and everyone in line. This song illustrates, in a hilarious manner, how in times of austerity social solidarity breaks down. The idea that in a time of extreme, extended drought the government would give control of a precious natural resource isn’t that absurd. There are African countries that have privatized water, with prohibition being placed on collect water off of your roof. Similarly, it was private contractors that have swept in to Afghanistan and Iraq to profit off of war.

After Joseph Strong is arrested for public urination, the scene shifts to “Urine Good Company.” The owner, Caldwell B. Cladwell, explains, in song, to his daughter Hope, why his massive wealth is a good thing.

The whole song could be an ad for Mitt Romney’s campaign. Romney has made his time at Bain Capital the central reason for his why he is qualified to be President. This song does a spectacular job pointing out the nonsenscial arguements that corporations use to justify massive tax cuts, a complete lack of ethical business practice and the continuation of massive CEO bonousess during a time of recession.

The most salient lyrics:

“Gosh Daddy, I never realized large, monopolizing corporations could be such a force for good in the world.”

“All those coins
That we take from the throng
End up here
Where those coins all belong
Lots of coins
Make our company strong!

Charging fees
As we please
Is our right – it’s not wrong!

We’re not greedy as some make us seem
We need funds for our big research team

Men in labcoats and test tubes with steam!

What it shows
No one knows
But, hey, still we can dream!”

Bobby Strong ends up falling in love with Hope Cladwell. The next day he takes over (occupies) the urinal where he works and opens the doors for everyone for free (starting the “pee-for-free rebellion.” Hope is still not convinced that her father is right about the “positive” affect his business has on society, he argues that the poor are animals and if they can’t pay it is their fault. Hope begins to doubt her father.

The first act ends with the Bobby publicly debating Mr. Cladwell on the system they all live in and Mr. Cladwell ordering the police to violently suppress the protestors. The police/corporatist side call Bobby/the rebels short-sighted and label them “socialistic scum.” Hope pretends that Bobby is kidnapping her so she can join the revolution without her father knowing.

Act 2 begins with the rebels on the run. While Bobby is away, they contemplate killing Hope before the police find them. Bobby returns and reminds them what they are fighting for. Mrs. Pennywise bursts into the secret hideout telling Bobby that Cladwell wants him to come to the UGC headquarters. Cladwell tries to bribe Bobby and when Bobby refuses he is “sent to Urinetown.” Then Cladwell bribes a Senator to let his company raise the urinal fees. The Senator and Mrs. Pennywise lament being part of such a corrupt system while the police officers relish the opportunity to execute Bobby. Hope takes over the rebellion and executes her father. She declares the water rationing over.

The musical ends with a complete subversion of expectations. The narrator, Officer Lockstock reveals that “As cruel as Caldwell B. Cladwell was, his measures effectively regulated water consumption, sparing the town the same fate as the phantom Urinetown. Hope chose to ignore the warning signs, however, preferring to bask in the people’s love for as long as it lasted.” The town in the musical becomes “what is always was waiting to be”, Urinetown!

Urinetown, not the place, the musical, is as complex as the Occupy movement. The difficulty for me, or anyone, critiquing the OWS movement is that they are not as monolithic as the Tea Party, so bear with me.

The disagreement I have with OWS is also one of their greatest strengths. Though I believe that capitalism is flawed and needs reform, those Occupying public spaces around North America were arguing for a complete rejection of the traditional power structures that lead to the global financial collapse. This is the complete opposite of the Tea Party who called for more deregulation and more power to corporations.

To many on the outside, Occupy may seem like the pee-for-free rebellion. They are demanding such drastic change, in some instances, that it is impossible to comprehend such a paradigm shift.

The revolution in Urinetown is not similar to the OWS protests of the summer of 2011, but it does have parallels to the causes of those protests. The revolving door between the United States Congress and Wall Street, as personified by the deals between Cladwell and the government, are too real. With private contractors giving corporate entities the ability to raise their own armies, the idea that a CEO could violently suppress a protest isn’t out of the realm of reality.

Some concluding thoughts:

The end of Urinetown provides a similar critique of populism to the one Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson does. Both musicals explore what happens when the mob/99% take over. In BBAJ, the fact that the mob is not the real majority drives their leader into an incoherent attack once that incongruity is revealed. In Urinetown, the goals of the revolutionaries, like those of the Tea Party, ignored the reality of their scarce resources.

The lesson that I take from both musicals is that the temptation of the populist narrative is strong but should be resisted. The term “revolution’ means a complete change in all aspects of society. I believe that there are some power structures that have positive potential but are corrupted by money and corporate interests.

Musicals, like many movements, are driven by emotion. They are propelled forward by emotions that are so potent that they can only be expressed through song. Like the characters in both musicals, members of the Tea Party and Occupy are driven by some undercurrents that they fail to acknowledge.

Go see/listen to Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Urinetown and tell me what you think. Also, see Into the Woods, it’s really great.

President Obama commits to high-speed rail in his 2011 SOTU!

This clip is from the energy section of the State of the Union speech. President Obama followed his promise to get rid of $4 billion worth of government subsidies to oil companies with a commitment to “bring high-speed rail to 80% of Americans within 25 years.” President Obama knows that high-speed rail is good for manufacturing in the short-term and produces many long-term benefits (economically and environmentally.)

The Liberal Party of Canada should commit to high-speed rail. Many journalists/political scientists have determined that Stephen Harper’s biggest weakness is his lack of vision. Bullet trains could be just the thing to capture the Canadian imagination and take the fight to PM Harper.