Everything we think we know about campaigns is a lie.
Perhaps that seems a but hyperbolic, but I have no other way to explain this week’s election results. After a campaign that seems to have lasted years, unrelenting media coverage, and poll upon poll, we have a campaign result that seemingly no one saw coming. I don’t know how that’s possible.
I spent the week before the election reading Victory Lab. I learned that data is now driving elections, that campaigns can use micro-targeting to identify likely voters and tailor their messages accordingly. In this era where data science dictates everything from interest rates to consumer advertising, the idea of campaigns using data made sense, even if it seemed a little creepy.
Clinton’s campaign apparently read Victory Lab too. Today, the Washington Post wrote about how her campaign relied on data from a secret algorithm named Ada, that was fed polling data and then dictated how the Clinton campaign should deploy resources, informing everything from campaign stops to where to buy TV ads.
“Clinton aides were convinced their work, which was far more sophisticated than anything employed by President Obama or GOP nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, gave them a big strategic advantage over Trump,” the story says.
If data is so valuable and so useful and so sophisticated, how did so many people get this election so wrong?
I’m not so much disturbed by the election result as I am by the fact that no one seemed to see this result as a possibility. Not the polls. Not the mainstream news media. And certainly not the Kennedy School. This week, the institutions I rely on to help me be an informed citizen were revealed to be out of touch with HALF of the voting population. There was no conversation or consideration of what a Trump presidency would look like because everyone was convinced it wouldn’t happen. That is a huge, huge failing.
The thing that seems most obvious to me is that we have turned what was once a tool (technology) into a panacea. If the Clinton campaign relied on Ada and allowed it to override decades of real-life campaign experience (which the Post seems to imply) to drive decision-making, that was a mistake. The Clinton’s have been playing politics for almost four decades. They have the experience to know how to connect with voters. And yet, they seem to have disregarded that experience in favor of an algorithm.
Over the next several months, I suspect we’ll learn more about how the polls got this election so wildly wrong. But I can’t help but think that an over-reliance on polling data combined with letting “data-driven decisions” trump tried and true lessons contributed greatly to the failure to accurately understand where the allegiances of voters in this country truly lay.