The Obama Election: Analytics Makes the Call

Nate Silver, the New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blogger, used a database of polling statistics to accurately predict the winner of all 50 states on the night of the U.S. presidential election.

Nate Silver, the New York Times' FiveThirtyEight blogger, used a database of polling statistics to accurately predict the winner of all 50 states on the night of the U.S. election.

Image courtesy of JD Lasica,

Even though President Barack Obama won the closely called race against Mitt Romney, it seems like the real star in last week’s presidential election is Nate Silver.

Silver, the New York TimesFiveThirtyEight blogger, utilized a tremendous database of polling data, both historic and current, to accurately predict the winner of all 50 states on the night of the election. He also gave Obama a 91% chance of winning, going against the media tide calling for a very close race (or a Romney win). And it wasn’t a fluke. In 2008, Silver correctly predicted the winner of 49 out of 50 states.

What’s the big deal? His results (and others like his) could have ripple effects on the way political campaigns are covered — and more importantly, run — in the future. According to a Huffington Post blog:

By disregarding the industry wisdom that gut feelings, day-to-day poll movements, and talking head commentary are what matter, [Silver] has decimated the value of these superficial judgments.

But it’s not just the baseball-statistician-turned-political-analyst Silver who is changing the way elections are conducted. The Obama election campaign itself has used data analytics to understand voter behavior — and adjust strategy accordingly.

In a Time article published on Nov. 7, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina explained his tactics during the run up to the 2008 and 2012 elections: “Measure every single thing in the campaign."

While much was written about the campaign’s use of data analytics, little was known about the actual details of that work until a group of senior campaign advisors agreed to share details with Time — as long as the information wasn’t published until after the new president was announced. According to the Nov. 7 article:

What [the advisors] revealed as they pulled back the curtain was a massive data effort that helped Obama raise $1 billion, remade the process of targeting TV ads and created detailed models of swing-state voters that could be used to increase the effectiveness of everything from phone calls and door knocks to direct mailings and social media.

The other thing that the Time article reveals is that the Obama campaign utilized a metric driven campaign “in which politics was the goal, but political instincts might not be the means."

In other words, in an industry driven by intuition, experience and gut instinct (backed by polls), numbers, data analytics and data driven insights may well rule the day.

That’s the way it should be, according to Andrew McAfee, Principal Research Scientist at MIT’s Center for Digital Business, part of the MIT Sloan School of Management.

“I would hope that it becomes increasingly clear that an [analytical] style is increasingly superior to the pundit style of decision making," said McAfee. “And I want to see the pundits driven out of their positions of authority. I believe Nate Silver was 50 for 50 in the state races, and he got the Electoral College exactly right. Compare that to all the pundits and their record was absolutely miserable."

McAfee said that Silver’s spot-on predictions are a clear example of the power, virtue and necessity of being data driven — where data is available — rather than intuition driven.

“I am not saying that intuition doesn’t exist or is bad or is wrong; our brains are really wonderful computers. What I am saying is that when we have data that is relevant and we know how to use that data to make better predictions — and our tool kit for doing that is really good right now — we do not need a balance between intuition and being data driven. We need about a hundred percent market share of the latter."

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