There’s been a lot of talk recently about how the Obama campaign had a big technological advantage over the Romney campaign. It is certainly true that the Obama campaign contacted many more voters personally and that Obama beat the pre-election-polls pretty badly (even Nate Silver only had Obama winning by 2.5). There’s also some evidence that these two facts are likely linked:
Two political scientists at Yale, Donald Green and Alan Gerber, went out and did a field experiment, which was a big deal at the time because political science lagged behind other social sciences in using field experiments to measure cause and effect in elections.
The first experiment was that they created a local GOTV [get out the vote] drive in New Haven and had voters get a reminder from a postcard, a canvasser, or paid callers, and then had a control group, who got nothing. And we learn there that the phone call group had no increase in voting, mail had a small increase, and there was a big boost from the in-person contact.
Discussions of the role of technology in politics will surely increase as the country falls under the spell of big data, which has now supplanted chaos, black swans, and tipping points as the most overused phrase in high-brow public dialog.
Although, I’m bullish on the Democratic party’s prospects, I’m extremely skeptical of the idea that we’re likely to have any longterm technological advantage. I read a long excerpt from Tom Edsall’s post-2004 election book “Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power” about how the Rovians were going to crush Democrats with super-genius micro-targeting. I can’t get those excerpts on-line but here’s a blurb from the dust jacket (by John Judis, who is pretty sharp):
“Tom Edsall is the best political reporter in America. His new book, Building Red America, makes a good case for why the Republicans are likely to stay a step ahead of the Democrats over the next few elections. I hope he is wrong, but Edsall, who brings a host of new considerations to bear, is a hard person to argue with.
In retrospect, it was obviously stupid to predict a long-term Republican majority (Edsall argued that one was likely) when Democrats were already winning by large margins among the youngest voters, but I think the emphasis on gimmicky marketing was misplaced, irrespective of that. All the direct mail in the world wasn’t going to convince voters to like the Iraq War or economic stagnation much less convince Latinos that the Republican party doesn’t hate them.
I’m hopeful that today’s Democratic party knows that it needs to treat issues like income inequality and immigration to become a powerful majority, that there’s no smart-ass high-tech way to do it.