Science and Elections


There are any number of explanations for Tuesday’s outcomes. My own sense is that the Republicans simply can’t put together a national majority and won’t be able to any time soon. But another possibility is getting floated by the chattering classes, and that is that the Democrats are superior electoral technocrats. To wit:

From today’s NYTimes:

That was just one of several ways that Mr. Obama’s campaign operations, some unnoticed by Mr. Romney’s aides in Boston, helped save the president’s candidacy. In Chicago, the campaign recruited a team of behavioral scientists to build an extraordinarily sophisticated database packed with names of millions of undecided voters and potential supporters. The ever-expanding list let the campaign find and register new voters who fit the demographic pattern of Obama backers and methodically track their views through thousands of telephone calls every night.

That allowed the Obama campaign not only to alter the very nature of the electorate, making it younger and less white, but also to create a portrait of shifting voter allegiances. The power of this operation stunned Mr. Romney’s aides on election night, as they saw voters they never even knew existed turn out in places like Osceola County, Fla. “It’s one thing to say you are going to do it; it’s another thing to actually get out there and do it,” said Brian Jones, a senior adviser.

Or from yesterday’s Washington Post:

The Obama campaign, on the other hand, spent $126 million in 2011 — more than three times Romney’s total that year. The campaign opened field offices, began an extensive outreach effort in swing states and enriched a voter database with information unavailable in the last election.

Some of that expensive new data included viewer habits, collected by cable companies, that provided clues to voter traits and preferences. In a race where middle-class female voters were courted by both camps, the Obama campaign advertised heavily on the CBS’s sitcom“2 Broke Girls,” according to a Yahoo analysis of Federal Elections Commission data. The campaign bought detailed voter updates, issued every two weeks.

Any sort of electronic connection becomes a possible data point, the collection and analysis of which is designed to acquire and exercise power. The role of behavioral science in electoral politics ought to give one pause. At the very least, as I’ve recently opined, individuals can opt out of polls, if not the information grid altogether.

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