Illustration by Tim Lahan
Illustration by Tim Lahan

Texas Governor Rick Perry doesn’t have a reputation as the most scientifically inclined of candidates. On the campaign trail, he told an 11-year-old that Texas schools teach both evolution and creationism because kids are “smart enough to figure out which one is right.”

It’s an interesting approach to education: Ever tried to figure out if the periodic table is accurate? Ever tried it before you turned 12?

It turned out not to matter, though, because Texas does not, in fact, require teachers to teach creationism.

Soon after, in his first Republican presidential debate, Perry was asked whether he could name any scientists who would back up his contention that the scientific foundation of global warming “is not settled.” He came up empty. Then, he compared his position on the issue to that of Galileo, who Perry said was also “outvoted for a spell.” This prompted former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman to sigh and warn the crowd that the Republican Party “can’t run from science.”

But there’s one kind of science that Perry is willing, even eager, to run on: political science. And that should have his opponents worried.

In his upcoming book “The Victory Lab,” Sasha Issenberg digs deep into Perry’s campaign organization, which he calls “the brainiest political operation in America.” After seven straight wins at the ballot box, Perry’s organization is also among the most fearsome in America. And there’s nothing unscientific about it. In fact, compared with Perry’s organization, every other campaign in America appears in denial of the evidence.

Perry’s Hero

The hero of this story is Dave Carney, Perry’s campaign manager and a guy who embraced political science in order to attack the traditional campaign-industrial complex.

Carney never really liked how campaigns were run. Where others saw time-tested tactics and the sage advice of veterans, Carney, like reformers in many fields, saw unquestioned biases and a preference for campaigning conventionally, which you never get blamed for doing, over campaigning unconventionally, which can get you tossed out of the profession if you lose.

For a long time, Carney kept his discontent relatively quiet. After all, he still had to get hired and work in the field. Then, in 2004, Carney ordered a book by Alan Gerber and Don Green, a pair of Yale University political scientists who had tried six years earlier to measure the influence of political mail, phone calls and home visits by partnering with the League of Women Voters to test different approaches in their outreach campaign. Their conclusion? Phone calls did nothing and direct mail did very little, but walking up to someone’s door and having a conversation actually mattered.

“The fact that they had done all these studies that show mail and phones don’t work -- I thought, ‘We spend a lot of money on mail and phones,’” Carney told Issenberg. “If it’s not working, let’s spend it on things that do work, or don’t spend it.”

But the question of what worked, and what didn’t work, couldn’t be answered by one study conducted by piggybacking onto one interest group’s outreach campaign. So Carney invited political scientists into Perry’s 2006 gubernatorial re-election bid. He allowed them to create, in effect, a laboratory for experiments testing different forms of campaigning.

That was, to say the least, an unorthodox use of both the campaign’s money and the candidate’s time. And the candidate wasn’t known for his excessive regard for academics. “You don’t have to have a Ph.D. from Harvard in political science to understand our economics,” Perry liked to say.

Four Eggheads

But Carney thought there was another side of Perry that the initiative could appeal to: He was cheap. And evidence can be a boon to cheapskates. “When you’re spending 25 million on an election and you can save 2 percent, that’s a lot of money,” Carney said. “You’ll have more money to spend on something that works.”

Carney invited four political scientists -- “our four eggheads,” he would call them -- into the campaign, and let them run wild testing ad buys, candidate visits, yard signs and the like. Some of what they found backed up conventional wisdom. The effect of television ads, they learned, decayed rapidly, so the conventional wisdom, that you don’t go on the air until you can afford to stay on the air, held.

Other findings were more surprising. A visit from the candidate had an enduring impact, both in the minds of voters and in the favorability of the local news coverage. Direct mail, robocalls, newspaper ads and visits to local editorial boards didn’t much matter, so Carney banished them from the next race. Most of the voters Perry was targeting were using social media heavily, so his campaign focused on creating virtual networks rather than opening regional campaign offices, a traditional mainstay of statewide races.

Perry easily won his subsequent elections.

That’s a lesson that Governor -- potentially, President -- Perry could apply to the science of global warming, as well. If we take the science seriously, we have a chance of avoiding the worst consequences. If we fail at that, at least we’ll have some idea of what to expect -- heavier storms, hotter summers, higher sea levels, more flooding, more droughts, geopolitical and economic instability -- and be able to get a head start on preparing for it.

But if we ignore the science, the results will not be good for cheapskates or anyone else. A powerful hurricane is a problem if you’ve prepared for it. It’s a catastrophe if you haven’t. A rise in global temperature of 2 to 3 degrees Celsius is something we could probably adapt to. The nightmare scenarios in which temperatures rise by as much as 6 or 7 degrees Celsius could trigger atmospheric and environmental responses far beyond anything we can readily absorb.

Perry’s invocation of Galileo speaks to the point. Galileo was relaying accurate empirical data that would have required an entrenched, faith-based political system to radically change its ideas, policies and plans. It was easier simply to arrest Galileo. Similarly, climate scientists today are relaying accurate empirical data that would require a sclerotic political system to radically change its ideas, policies and plans. Shouting down the scientists might be easier, but in the long run it will prove much more expensive. If Perry needs convincing of that, he can just ask Carney and the eggheads whose data-driven labors helped put Perry in position to run for president.

(Ezra Klein is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on this article: Ezra Klein in Washington at wonkbook@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net