Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Cato Working Behind Scenes to Close GOP's Campaign-Science Gap

Here are some excerpts from a new piece by Sasha Issenberg at Bloomberg Politics:
This spring, the Cato Institute identified 600 Americans who read more than 20 books per year and made arrangements to send them each one more. The libertarian think tank split these readers into three groups. One group received a free copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, one got longtime Cato executive David Boaz’s The Libertarian Mind, and one a book that Cato scholars considered a useful placebo to free-market doctrine: the Bible. After three months, six months, and 12 months, members of all three groups would be surveyed to see if the unsolicited books they had received could explain differential response rates to one question: Do you consider yourself a libertarian?
The Cato researcher behind the project explained to other members of a below-the-radar Republican group known as the Center for Strategic Initiatives, or CSI, that the 600 books were just part of a pilot test. If the design appeared to work properly, the experiment would be replicated on a larger scale: 12,000 books this time. “Political books have never been tested,” says David Kirby, now a vice president and senior fellow at Cato. “Think tanks think that books persuade people. Do they?”
Very few other members of the CSI circle had ever used books as tools for changing minds. A range of political consultants and vendors, they tended to trade in more ephemeral modes of communication: television ads and robocalls, direct mail, digital ads, and door knocks. But they were there for the same reason that Kirby had been willing to entertain the perfidy of using Cato resources to question whether reading Ayn Rand actually led people to libertarianism—a willingness to take everything they thought they knew about what works in politics and hold it up to empirical investigation.

These "field experiments" are still taking place at Cato, and here is what the article says about the schedule:
The CSI circle has yet to fall into a reliable schedule, and its gatherings—which now take place roughly every six weeks or so at Cato’s Washington headquarters—already mark a very different mode of collaboration. There is not a politician in sight, or many brand-name operatives; few attendees appear to be over the age of 40. This sphere of political operatives and party hacks angling to remake Republican campaigns includes strategists and tacticians for many of the party’s top presidential candidates, along with staffers from the Republican National Committee and consultants attached to various elements of the Koch political network.
...About 50 people responded to [CSI founder Blaise] Hazelwood’s invitation to gather at Cato in early June and, arrayed before her that Thursday afternoon, at long tables in lecture-hall formation, the schisms of the Republican Party in the early days of the presidential campaign were unmistakable.
...Kirby became an enthusiastic booster of Hazelwood’s project. After he went to work at the Cato Institute in early 2014, he offered one of the think tank’s large conference rooms to host the right’s version of the “geek lunch.” The first CSI meeting, in late 2013, drew more than 100 people from across conservative politics.

The full article can be read here.

In 2015 Cato was ranked as the 8th best think tank in the United States and the 16th best think tank in the world by the annual University of Pennsylvania think tank rankings.