Last week, a friend forwarded me a quote from a recent New Yorker article:

“There is a benign underworld in American politics. It is not the underworld of cigar-chewing pot-bellied officials who mysteriously run “the machine.” Such men are still around, but their power is waning. They are becoming obsolete though they have not yet learned that fact. The new underworld is made up of innocent and well-intentioned people…. Most of these people are highly educated, many of them are Ph.D.s, and none that I have met have malignant political designs on the American public. They may, however, radically reconstruct the American political system, build a new politics, and even modify revered and venerable American institutions—facts of which they are blissfully innocent. They are technicians and artists; all of them want, desperately, to be scientists.“

This was penned in 1964 by a political scientist named Eugene Burdick, and while the New Yorker article points out that his “dystopianism is vintage Cold War,” it strikes me as a quote that similar experts and talking heads could make today with resounding head-nods from even the most tech-savvy of contemporary politicos, myself included.

In Iowa, the 2016 caucuses are hurdling towards us like an all-too-familiar tornado, and Iowans are getting pummeled with shrapnel in the form of sound bites coming from every candidate in every direction.

What seems like melee is, of course, a carefully crafted cacophony. Each candidate has done extensive polling and focus grouping, testing not just how popular different issues are, but the best way to phrase those issues in the context of the candidate’s public image and persona.

Iowa Caucus Technology

This process melds a candidate’s very real personality with attitudes and opinions designed to carve out the largest portion of an electorate. The end product is a wacky Venn diagram of caucus-goers, all of whom are only truly similar in one way (that they will all likely attend the caucuses), and whose dissimilarities have been quantified, counted and categorized.

This process is not new, as Eugene Burdick reminds us. But the political technical class has, of course, gotten better at it by adding layers of nuance while tightening their margins of error.

The sheer size of the digital footprint left by people in their wake, while blundering around online (and offline), would lead any scientist – political or not – to ask: What can I do with this?

While Iowans (and Americans) may snub the poll-driven politician, we must also recognize that we are the ones who created the monster. When I watch the presidential debates, I see the American political subconscious devoured, digested and regurgitated back to us.

Devoured by polling, digested by data-scientist and political hacks, and regurgitated with varying degrees of finesse by the candidates. By the end of the debates, I sometimes feel like I learned more about America than the candidates.

A political campaign is an explicit game of survival-of-the-fittest, and data science is a powerful tool in a presidential campaign’s toolbox. But even as a recovering political data hack myself, it does not pain me to say – it is only a tool.

It’s a tool that grows in sophistication each election cycle, but it’s still only a tool.

Another data science hack friend of mine I worked with on the Obama campaign in 2008 told me a story of a down-ballot campaign manager that year who had asked how he could replicate the Obama “data-driven-machine” to get-out-the-vote.

My friend’s response was: “Well, you can start by getting Barack Obama to be your candidate.”

All the work, all the polling, all the data, all the science — it all goes towards propping up a person. That person is just like you or me, except in every way that (hopefully) qualifies that person to be President of the United States more than you or me.

And listening to polling, I believe, is actually a very good quality of a president. Lest we want to elect someone who does not feel beholden to the American people the day after the election.

Political science is undoubtedly a more sophisticated “machine” today than it was 50 years ago when Eugene tried to warn the world that we data hacks would “radically reconstruct the American political system.”

Perhaps data science has radically changed politics, but not in any manner that separates voters from the decisions in front of them, in the ballot box, or in their precinct caucuses.

Instead, I believe that the modern poll-driven candidate forces American voters to look in the mirror and be very conscientious when deciding what matters, and what doesn’t, when choosing the direction we want our country to go in (and the very fallible and inspiring individuals we think can lead us there).

The greatest challenge, however, is to not be offended when we don’t like what we see in the mirror, and instead work to effect the world around us in a manner that befits the person (and country) we want to become before our next poll-driven gut-check four years from now.

– Micah Honeycutt, MITTERA Director of Analytics. 

Micah served as the Midwest and, later, Iowa Data Science Director for President Obama during the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.


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