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For Political Communication, the Age of Nerds and Big Data is Here

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Sophisticated campaign communication (an important part of political communication) is a field both invented and dominated by American practitioners and scholars. When I ask my associates in the field why this is so, the reason they usually give me is the sheer quantity and frequency of democratic elections in the American political system. Therefore, they point out, human and material resources have been poured into the science and the art of winning election campaigns.  What is important for our purposes is that  the practices of American political communicators tend to spread worldwide... like much else in American culture. Politicians in newly democratizing polities have for decades now invited American political consultants to help them run and win elections. Local specialists have also mushroomed, many of them trained by the American universities who offer amazingly good degrees in communication, particularly political communication. If you are interested in campaign communication as a global phenomenon, a good place to start is Fritz Plasser's Global Political Campaigning: A Worldwide Analysis of Campaign Professionals and Their Practices (2002).

My bet is that at least two aspects of the recently concluded presidential election campaign in the United States -- a spectacular showcase of political communication at work -- will prove influential globally. President Obama was re-elected and it was a big win, but for campaign communication two methods won big victories of their own and they are likely to be flattered with imitation worldwide. They are as follows:

1) The brilliant use of Big Data by the Obama campaign. What does this mean? The campaign recruited a super-smart data analytics team able to crunch through a humongous  database of voter information from a variety of sources and mine it for a stunning variety of insights. The decision was to minimize the role of hunches, of guesswork in the planning and execution of the campaign. They used the insights derived from the data to drive fund-raising, advertising decisions, choice of campaign surrogates and, above all, the stupendously effective voter mobilization effort that won the election. For two accessible descriptions of the ground-baking work done by the geeks in The Cave, within Obama Campaign headquarters in Chicago, please see 'Inside the Secret World of the Data Crunchers Who Helped Obama to Win' in Time Magazine and 'Under the Hood of Team Obama's Tech Operation' in Mother Jones Magazine. That is the future of political campaigns.

2) The campaign also occasioned a showdown between traditional media  pundits and the nerds who crunch Big Data to forecast the election result. It was hilarious really, the showdown. In the final months and weeks of the campaign, the traditional political pundits were all over the place. They generated ridiculous amounts of heat but little or no light. They relied on their hunches, their gut feelings, and  their mystical, mysterious musings. They spoke breathlessly about momentum without any foundation in data. They simply made very little sense. Citizens were so confused many partisans became nervous wrecks. Yet, throughout it all, there were  a few nerds who crunched the polling data, plus or minus the economic data, and were making confident forecasts. They kept saying that President Obama was ahead and was likely to win. By election eve these nerds were confidently predicting a solid win for the president and his likely margin in the electoral college and the popular vote. Many of the pundits were either saying it was too close to call or that the challenger would win hands down. As it turned out, the nerds won the showdown with the pundits hands down; like the election itself, it was not even close. For details please see:  'Triumph of the Nerds: Nate Silver Wins in 50 States' in Mashable, and 'Election Result Proves a Victory for Pollsters and Other Data Devotees' in the New York Times. As the pollster Mark Blumenthal is quoted as saying in the latter story:

'While the election's biggest winner was President Barack Obama, the other victory on Tuesday night went to the careful application of reason, data and, yes, the science of modern survey research. The losers were the amateur poll mavens who sought to "unskew" the polls and the pundits who saw what they wanted to see.'

It was not simply that the pundits mostly messed up, they declared war on the nerds before election day, only to be proved terribly wrong. My guess is that before the next presidential election more media houses will hire their own version of Nate Silver, the resident geek of the New York Times.  But I cannot leave the point without saluting my own favorite geek as the campaign unfolded: Professor Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium. His meta-analysis of the polling data was brilliant and, like Nate Silver, Drew Linzer of Emory University (See Votamatic) and others, they made sense of the confounding profusion of polling data and statistical noise and they predicted the outcome correctly. The tribe of these geeks will only increase.

So, my bet is that these approaches are going to spread worldwide and shape not just political campaigns but also  political communication as a field of practice. I have always felt that many people do not understand the extent to which effective political communication is really grounded in the insights of the behavioral sciences, especially social psychology, but now we see a spectacular instance of the contribution of Big Data.

Another section of the black box of human political behavior has just been brilliantly illuminated.

Photo Credit: BBVATech

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Comments

Submitted by Isabel Guerrero on
Congratulations for a great blog. Very interesting how big data can move the world!

Submitted by Daniel on
It is a mix of rationality and emotion. And the camp that succeeds in getting the combination right wins.

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