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January 01st 2013 print

Steve Kates

The New Politics of Data-Driven Elections

The American election was more than just a loss to the Republican candidate. If Barack Obama could win with his track record and his political philosophy and could do so against a candidate who would have won in a landslide twenty years before, then there are implications for parties of the Right everywhere. Obama laid down a template that may not be applicable in every circumstance in each jurisdiction but it will be studied by every party of the Left and copied wherever those lessons can be applied. You can see many of these techniques in operation already.

In watching the American election as closely as I did, a number of related matters seemed particularly significant: the politics of division; a changing ethos on public outlays (the “free stuff” mentality); and the role of the media; and the ability of the Democrats to tailor their message almost individually to each voter to an extent previously unimaginable.

I realise that in Australia—where according to a BBC survey only 6 per cent of the population supported Romney for president—his loss would seem pretty unimportant. But the very fact that so many who think of themselves as on the Right in this country were unable to detect a kindred spirit gets to the core of the problem. Why you think he was a weak candidate was his problem, but it is also yours.

Romney was far and away the best candidate available to the Republicans. In an environment of the politics of personal destruction, there was virtually no element of his life history that could be used against him. He was conservative to an exceptional degree. He was personally warm and humane. He had a professional background that made him almost ideal in trying to find a way through the fiscal mess previous administrations had created. He would have rid the USA of Obama’s impending health care disaster while being able to work with the states to make a system of health care universally available. And on foreign policy he would have supported our Western way of life against a rising tide of totalitarian regimes of various denominations. In each of these aspects he presented a fundamental difference from Obama. But he lost, so let us discuss the reasons why.

I start with this quote from a Wall Street Journal column written by Peggy Noonan in July 2011. It was these words that first alerted me to the difficulties that dislodging Obama would pose:

The other day a Republican political veteran forwarded me a hiring notice from the Obama 2012 campaign. It read like politics as done by Martians. The “Analytics Department” is looking for “predictive modeling/data mining” specialists to join the campaign’s “multi-disciplinary team of statisticians”, which will use “predictive modeling” to anticipate the behavior of the electorate. “We will analyze millions of interactions a day, learning from terabytes of historical data, running thousands of experiments, to inform campaign strategy and critical decisions.”

Not even the Republicans, who understood what was going on, could figure out how to counter the kind of data-mining and information-gathering techniques involved. My favourite operation was the $3 donation strategy. It was the “win a date with George Clooney or Sarah Jessica Parker” by donating only $3. Focus groups had shown that no one worried about $3 as a sum of money to spend, but people still felt it to be a meaningful contribution. But in sending in your $3, you also had to provide a considerable amount of information. The money meant next to nothing to the Obama campaign but the information was pure gold.

If you want to know how this information was used, here is a taste from a post-election article from Alexis Madrigal of the Atlantic. Picture just how pinpoint-accurate the Obama campaign must have been at getting particular messages to particular people:

They created the most sophisticated email fundraising program ever. The digital team … took their data-driven strategy to a new level. Any time you received an email from the Obama campaign, it had been tested on 18 smaller groups and the response rates had been gauged. The campaign thought all the letters had a good chance of succeeding, but the worst-performing letters did only 15 to 20 percent of what the best-performing emails could deliver. So, if a good performer could do $2.5 million, a poor performer might only net $500,000. The genius of the campaign was that it learned to stop sending poor performers.

Obama became the first presidential candidate to appear on Reddit, the massive popular social networking site … 30,000 Redditors registered to vote after the President dropped in a link to the Obama voter registration page. Oh, and the campaign also officially has the most tweeted tweet and the most popular Facebook post … Laura Olin, a former strategist at Blue State Digital who moved to the Obama campaign, ran the best campaign Tumblr the world will probably ever see.

… the Analytics team built a tool they called The Optimizer, which allowed the campaign to buy eyeballs on television more cheaply. They took set-top box (that is to say, your cable or satellite box or DVR) data from Davidsen’s old startup, Navik Networks, and correlated it with the campaign’s own data. This occurred through a third party called Epsilon: the campaign sent its voter file and the television provider sent their billing file and boom, a list came back of people who had done certain things like, for example, watched the first presidential debate. Having that data allowed the campaign to buy ads that they knew would get in front of the most of their people at the least cost. They didn’t have to buy the traditional stuff like the local news, either. Instead, they could run ads targeted to specific types of voters during reruns or off-peak hours.
[My emphasis]

This is the game as it is now played at the highest levels. They know who you are, they know what you are worried about and they can reach you on Facebook, e-mails, text messaging, television spots just when you’re watching and in other ways that are tailored to match the profile you have provided.

As I look back on the Obama campaign, there were no major accidents, no serious mistakes. It was as near perfectly designed and executed as anything I have ever seen. Even his “you didn’t build that” statement, which looked to many of us at the time as an error, upon reflection I am unsure whether or not it was perfectly pitched to reach its target audience. If you are reading this article, you are not that audience. As with computer chess, no human can now consistently win against such technology. Human judgment works up to a point. For Obama nothing mattered other than what would create a net plurality of votes. All other considerations were off the table. How against the odds his re-election ought to have been. How relatively effortless it turned out because of the data available and the analytics that went with it. On the Left, this has now become state of the art.

The supposedly educated, and in particular their offshoots in the tertiary sector and the media, are now far to the Left. The philosophies of the 1960s radical are now mainstream elite opinion. Expect few amongst those with higher education to support entrepreneurially-centred market solutions to our economic problems, genuinely free speech on all sides of political questions, or the values of the Judeo-Christian tradition. This last one is especially important. Everyone on the Left is now their own Voltaire; Écrasez l’infâme is their watchword however many other “infâmes” there may now be to “écraser”. Central direction by governments of the Left is the core of their belief system.

The media everywhere have generally been supporters of the Left. But whether because of the availability of alternative sources of information or because of an even more decided shift to the Left, the flow of information to the community is now so entirely biased that straightforward reporting of the views of a mainstream party of the Right can hardly find its way into the national conversation. In many respects during the election, media reports and analysis consisted of Democratic Party talking points. For the Republican Party, as for all parties of the Right, it is as if all games are away games with the media providing the crowd noise. A goal by the home team comes with cheers and general all-round satisfaction; a goal by the other side is met with polite applause or even silence. A foul behind play by a player on the team from the Left is taken as part of the rough and tumble of the game; a much lesser offence committed by the Right-of-centre away team brings down the hostility of the crowd—that is, the mass condemnation of the media.

And it is not that the media are in some ordinary sense corrupt and corrupted. They are not influenced to take positions against their own beliefs. It is, instead, that these are the views of the mainstream media. They call it as they see it, but they see it with eyes far to the Left. It is not possible to succeed in the media unless one sees the issues in this way. The hiring practices of mainstream media organisations (the MSM) are designed in a kind of apostolic succession of like-minded individuals of the Left in major positions of influence.

There was therefore a co-ordination between the President and the media in which both saw Obama’s re-election as an end deeply to be desired. They worked as one, amplifying the good and hiding the bad for the Democrats while for the Republicans it was the reverse. There is, of course, Fox News, which provides a more balanced coverage, although as a cable news network it doesn’t reach into every market. But if you are watching Fox you are already tuned in to the political debate; we are talking about those without an active interest in politics. What matters are the “low information” voters who know practically nothing about the issues and whose vote will be based on some stray fact or emotional response to some random event. For such people, the media provide a background that at every turn provided as much positive reinforcement as they could muster for Obama while simultaneously providing an anti-Romney message that never ceased.

“Superstorm Sandy”, the hurricane that devastated parts of the American north-east in the week before the election, provides an interesting case in point. Obama’s role either before or after the hurricane went inland was zero. But he did a photo op at Sandy command central dressed in his leather bomber jacket and acting as if he was the man in charge, images of which were carried far and wide. The results of an exit poll taken by Fox are quite extraordinary: 42 per cent of voters said Sandy had an important influence on their vote.

The numbers as raw numbers are obviously untrue. In the week before the election, people’s minds had been made up, so this is an after-the-fact rationalisation for most of those surveyed. But not for all. The media’s playing up of Obama’s non-contribution as if it were a serious effort by a president who understood what needed doing and then did what was required is laughable until you look at these numbers. Romney didn’t lose by many votes in aggregate, and particularly in the states that mattered. Here is something worth thinking about, written by Mike Harwood on instapundit.com:

A week before the election, the in-the-tank-for-Obama MSM was deeply worried that Romney was going to beat their guy, so they played up Superstorm Sandy and the game-changing effect it was having on the election for all it was worth … the MSM would prefer that Americans forget that a freak storm probably averted an Obama loss. Obviously, such a loss would entirely pre-empt “Operation Demoralize”, and the only thing the MSM enjoys more than helping elect Democrats is predicting doom and despair for Republicans.

“Operation Demoralize” completely falls apart if one considers just how close the margin of victory was for Obama in the four swing states that decided the election, and how Superstorm Sandy almost certainly moved enough votes from Romney to Obama to provide the election victory. In Florida, with nearly 8.3 million ballots cast, the margin of victory was a mere 52,000 votes. Because this US presidential election was a two-person race, a takeaway by one candidate from another represents a two-vote swing. Accordingly, if somewhere in the order of 26,000 Floridians, out of 8.3 million, decided that they were changing their vote from Romney to Obama based on his supposed “heckuva job” in relation to the storm response, those voters alone decided Florida’s 29 electoral votes. Given the AP exit poll and its 42% figure for those who claimed the storm influenced their decision to vote for Obama, it’s safe to say that Superstorm Sandy threw far more than 26,000 voters into Obama’s column and out of Romney’s.

The same argument can be made in Ohio. 5.3 million votes cast, margin of victory: 103,000. If the storm flipped about 52,000 votes or more from Romney to Obama, then no storm meant Ohio would have been a Romney win on election day.

In Virginia, 3.7 million votes cast, margin of victory: 107,000. If the storm influenced 54,000 voters or more to abandon Romney for Obama, the storm was decisive in converting a Romney win in Virginia to an Obama win.

In Colorado, nearly 2.4 million votes cast, margin of victory: 113,000. If 57,000 voters or more moved from the Romney camp to the Obama camp based on the storm, then Obama doesn’t win the state if the storm never happens.

A Romney win in these four states would have given him the election.

The central issue is the role of the media. They did what they could to turn a natural disaster into a reason to vote for Obama. This may or may not have made the decisive difference in this instance. We will never know for sure, although the data do make you wonder. The point here is not whether in this instance the media were able to make a difference but that such random events along with all other events will be used by the media to help the candidates they like and to undermine the candidates they do not like. For parties on the Right, the media are, in general, their enemy and cannot be trusted to carry their message correctly, assuming the media even broadcast their message at all.

Part of the genius of the Obama campaign was to make Romney himself the issue. Policy disasters both domestic and foreign during the first four years of the Obama presidency were never centre-stage. The economy is in a shambles, while not only are internationally ideologically-based totalitarian regimes rising but Obama has done what he can to assist their rise. There’s a lot of civilisational decay but Obama is doing nothing to prevent it, assuming he is not actually trying to hasten it. Although it means nothing to almost everyone, Obama was a close associate of Bill Ayers and a disciple of Saul Alinsky. If neither of these names frightens you it is merely evidence that you do not know who they are or what their aims have been.

Romney had policies that were designed to address the USA’s problems. Obama had none at all. Yet it was Romney who was asked to fill out the details of his policy proposals. What Obama did do was promote division. For all his rhetoric of bringing people together, he is the great divider. A mainstream party of the Right now has to bear in mind that the other side will be made up of a coalition of single-issue concerns that are in large part based on grievance and fear. Two matters readily come to mind.

First there was Obama saying that “voting is the best revenge”. Romney fell on this statement as if it had been a great blunder. But with the analytical ability of the Obama campaign, there are no such blunders. The actual blunder, if there was one, was for Romney to use Obama’s statement in his own ads. There are a lot of hatreds out there amongst voters. Such vengeance is aimed at success, the tribe that responds to “you didn’t build that”. A great athlete is rewarded for a talent anyone can appreciate. But to take the most obvious example, the owners of businesses, the people who receive high incomes for running corporations, or for running just about anything at all, so far as the majority of the population are concerned, their efforts have no obvious connection with their prosperity. It requires a kind of abstract thinking about society in general and the relationships between a myriad of contingent events to appreciate how it all works.

Romney was therefore the perfect representative of that success. Those who understand, as Romney did, the ingredients of a successful economy which is in part made up of the ingredients of successful businesses, can vote for the parties of the Right. But such people are no longer in the majority across the community, and they are certainly not in the majority among elite opinion or the media.

These are the concepts that matter. Businesses are run by capitalists who exploit workers and cheat their customers. Large government, with all its imperfections, makes those greedy capitalists share their ill-gotten gains and protects those at the bottom of the pile from the ones at the top. Along with business, church leaders and anyone with a religious outlook on life will stifle our freedoms and return us to the Dark Ages. This is mainstream opinion and it endangers any party that tries to resist such notions.

Along with voting for revenge, the single most striking ad was the ad addressed to women to “vote like your lady parts depend on it”. This was probably the most sexist ad ever introduced into political debate since women received the vote. An ad that exhorted men to vote for their interests as men would be inconceivable. Obama’s ad is comparable to Julia Gillard’s, “I will not be lectured to about sexism and misogyny by this man”, in its appeal to women through raising the spectre of misogyny. The political dangers of any man making any critical remarks about any woman have now been ramped up to an extraordinary degree. The dangers of even pointing this out may be quite extreme given the Left-dominated intellectual climate we inhabit.

But what does it mean to “vote like your lady parts depend on it”? These were the focus-group-approved words that the Obama campaign worked out would change the voting patterns of women. The ad was withdrawn after a few days of criticism but it found its mark, and the criticism no doubt help spread the message. Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech seems to have worked a treat in that it helped turn round Labor Party fortunes when they were at their lowest ebb. These ads also worked for Obama in that the gender gap in voting was the widest it has ever been since Gallup began to measure it in 1952.

The problems with economic growth and poor employment growth derive from the size of the deficit and the level of debt. Public spending is out of control and Obama is making no serious effort to contain it. In his one discussion of his loss after the election, Romney made this comment, which seems a reasonable summation of the problems he faced:

What the president’s campaign did was focus on certain members of his base coalition, give them extraordinary financial gifts from the government, and then work very aggressively to turn them out to vote.

Romney was attacked by those on his own side of the fence for saying so but there ought to be no doubt that this was a major factor in Obama’s victory. In trying to bring a massive deficit under control, spending will need to be cut; some forms of public outlays will need to be reduced and restricted. Obama preferred to pretend that every­thing could be afforded. All that was needed was for the wealthy to cough up more in taxes. Romney discussed this in a clandestine recording made of a speech he gave about “the 47 per cent” who pay no tax, but his views were hardly secret, since he published them in his 2010 book, No Apology:

In light of the challenges faced by the country, I am puzzled by those who align themselves with a political agenda that may be well intentioned, but that weakens the country and hazards our freedom.

First, however, there are people who correctly presume that they will get more money from governments if it is run by Democrats. I understand these kinds of Democrats very well. Adam Lerrick of the American Enterprise Institute calculated for the Wall Street Journal that under candidate Obama’s tax plan, 49 percent of all Americans will pay no income tax. Added to that number are 11 percent who would pay federal income tax of less than 5 percent of their income. So for 60 percent of Americans, spending restraint and lower taxes championed by Republicans may not mean a great deal to them personally—at least in the short term, even though the lower taxes promote economic growth, good jobs and higher incomes.

A pretty good deal for those on the lower end of the tax bill: plenty of bribes to the electorate to those with no need to pay for any of it. Parties of the Left will continue to promote such expenditures until that fateful day when they run out of other people’s money. The unaffordable bribes keep on coming, so that we find Labor promising one improvement in welfare after another while also pretending it will balance the budget. With one side promising more, however irresponsible it might be to make the promise, while the other side promises less as a means to keep the economy on track and growing, the tendency will be to go for more. You don’t need everyone to agree, merely 50.1 per cent.

So here is the problem facing Tony Abbott as he tries, as did Mitt Romney, to put together a package of proposals that will deal with the actual problems Australia has. In running against a party of the Left, based on Obama’s re-election campaign these are the problems he will need to keep in mind.

They will use some of the most sophisticated analytical and statistical techniques available to uncover every grievance in every sub-constituency. They will then target these groups with promises to fix whatever problems they pick up.

They will run a precisely targeted campaign of fear based on the threat of losing programs or payments that benefit each of these sub-constituencies.

They will label the Coalition as representatives of a tired, old ideology based on principles no longer relevant in the twenty-first century. Misogyny, reproductive rights, religion, along with any number of issues that their analytics team has identified, will be driven whether or not there is any reality behind these fears. Labor being the party of the path of least resistance is almost never under such threats.

They will promise what cannot be afforded and dare the Coalition not to match their supposed generosity. Criticisms about the affordability of such ideas—where’s the money coming from?—will work just as well for the ALP.

They will invent sources of revenue that will never in reality cover the cost of their programs but which are sourced well beyond their own target constituency.

They not only will have but will expect to have, and will be entirely dependent on, virtually the whole of the media being in their corner at every stage of the way who will cover for Labor to the fullest extent they can while ratcheting up the decibel count on any issue that might harm the Coalition.

The Left’s incompetence and bad government are never enough to ensure its defeat. And the more that outdated notions of personal freedom and independence are moved downwards in the scale of collective values the more difficult a party of the Left will be to dislodge. The ALP has not yet lost the next election. Barack Obama, with hardly a success to his name, is still the president. Polls or no polls, who the Australian prime minister will be a year from today is yet to be determined.

Steven Kates’s Free Market Economics: An Introduction for the General Reader is published by Edward Elgar.