April 24, 2014

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Romance & “Reality” in the 2012 Presidential Campaign

Romance and “reality” are in conflict as the 2012 Presidential campaign approaches its election day apex. While the 2012 Presidential campaign lacks the historical resonance of the 2008 campaign, the 2012 campaign is notable, in part, for the attention many are giving to the quantitative analysis of polling data, most famously prepared by Nate Silver. Having correctly predicted 49 out of 50 states in 2008, Mr. Silver’s 2012 forecast has quite a bit of credibility, particularly with hopeful supporters of President Obama, who, on November 1st, Mr. Silver gave an 80.1% chance of retaining the Presidency.

Mr. Silver’s predictions have not impressed a group of people who also saw their stars rise as a result of interest in the historic 2008 election – political pundits. I describe a political pundit as anyone who might sit around the table on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. Therefore, it is very appropriate that Joe Scarborough came to be at the heart of the most high profile dispute between Mr. Silver and a political pundit. Early on November 1st, via Twitter, Mr. Silver offered to bet Mr. Scarborough (with the winnings going to charity) on the outcome of the election. By the end of the day, the New York Times Public Editor had chastised Mr. Silver for offering the bet and Mr. Scarborough, also via Twitter, complimented Mr. Silver’s blog and made a $5,000 donation in Mr. Silver’s name to aid survivors of Sandy. In the end, this dispute between the romance and “reality” of politics led to a positive outcome for people in need.

The “romance” of retail politics – talking with voters on the street, recruiting supporters to canvass, handing out yard signs and t-shirts, having gut feelings and off-the-record conversations about the direction of the race – has been complimented in recent years by sophisticated programs targeting voters on-line with tailored advertising and building on-line communities to get supporters out to the polls to vote. Separating politics, technology and statistical analysis at this point would be unnatural and unnecessarily limit the useful information available to people about political races.

When I was campaigning to be an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in Washington, DC in the early 2000s, I dropped flyers at every house in my district and went to the candidate forums hosted by local civic associations. As I was handing out my flyers at the polls on election day, people kept walking up to me and telling me that they remembered my name and picture from the flyers I left for them and said they were happy I was running. Some of them told me stories about having been students at schools in Washington, DC where my Grandfather taught or was Principal. By the end of the day, my gut told me I was on course to defeat the incumbent.

Volunteering for the Obama campaign in 2008 and Richard Blumenthal’s Connecticut Senate campaign in 2010, sophisticated computer models identified which voters to target for in-person visits. The Obama campaign’s development of this system was undoubtedly a huge factor in the 2008 race and the Obama 2012 campaign’s get out the vote operation will be a major factor in determining the winner of this upcoming election. Nonetheless, people are not going to dedicate their time and money to a cause just based on statistical analysis that suggests that it’s the efficient thing for them to do. A politician can’t win without dedicated volunteers who are attracted to the romance of campaigning – going door-to-door, seeing people’s enthusiasm and hearing their promises to vote. After seeing the other yard signs in a neighborhood and the reactions of people not on my target list to my t-shirt, I usually had a good sense of how we were doing in the neighborhood.

Today, with my wife and I blessed to have had our first child two weeks ago, I am staying close to home this fall, thinking and writing about civic and political engagement, including how the polling that goes into statistical models could be made more efficient. Communities across the country will be stronger as citizens and government use wireless technology and the Internet more effectively to communicate and solve problems together in real time.

Of course, on the crisp fall days just before the election, volunteering out in the field still seems like fun – and a necessary part of the political process.