What We Don't Know About Elections

Oct 17 2011

If you happened to be at the recent Online News Association conference in Boston and happened to attend the session on covering the 2012 elections, then a good bit of this will be repetitive. Since there wasn’t a ton of time to expand on what I said, and I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m critical of all election coverage, consider this the write-through.

First, I stand by what I said about how little we understand about the way that elections are won or lost these days. It’s not that political journalism has strayed from its roots, or stopped covering important elements of a modern campaign. It’s that the elements of a modern campaign have changed, and as journalists, we have not kept pace.

You might respond that campaigns still involve quite a lot of stuff that we do understand, such as debates and visits to state fairs and town hall meetings. True. But the nature of media and technology has brought extensive changes to the electoral system, and I don’t believe that we as journalists devote enough attention to understanding those changes. Remember the Dean campaign in 2003? Most of the coverage was on the, for then, staggering online fundraising managed by some doctor from Vermont. But that Wired piece I referenced had it right; Dean’s accomplishment was less a mastery of the Internet but a willingness to embrace its fundamental aspect: you give up some control by bringing other people in, and you gain a host of possibilities. You may, of course, choose badly or falter in some other way, but the lessons and possibilities are becoming clear. At the time, as a Web geek who loved politics, I felt that journalists couldn’t really explain the Dean campaign, because it was so alien to us. Today’s campaigns make me long for the simplicity of 2003.

But let’s stick with fundraising for a bit. Political fundraising can be hugely expensive, because campaigns need to amass large number of donors. Unless you’re the President, it’s hard to repeatedly gather the wealthiest Americans and have them fork over $2,500 or more for the pleasure of your company. So a smart campaign sticks with what works: direct mail is costly, for example, but it’s also effective. Telemarketing takes time and money, but it also works pretty well. Let’s not mess with the script too much. But what if you can mess with the script? Now it’s possible, even trivial, to experiment with Web site design or even advertisements in order to gauge their effectiveness and improve upon them. President Obama had a Director of Analytics for his 2008 campaign, and has been hiring data scientists experienced in predictive modeling.

White men smoking cigars in cramped rooms making gut calls is how we’ve usually understood campaign decision-making. This? Whole new ballgame. Yes, there is still a mass audience that is shaped by the media and big events. But there are now thousands and thousands of “small” audiences – or rather, they always were there. Now campaigns can identify them and deliver precision messages to them. And they can find them online in different ways; an hour after posting on Twitter about the Obama’s campaign use of Github, the campaign’s Digital Director was following me. And that’s the easy part.

While campaigns have a public presence that is mostly recorded and observed, the stuff that goes on behind the scenes is so much more sophisticated than it has been. In 2008 we were fascinated by the Obama campaign’s use of iPhones for data collection; now we’re entering an age where campaigns don’t just collect information by hand, but harvest it and learn from it. An “information arms race,” as GOP consultant Alex Gage puts it.

For most news organizations, the standard approach to campaign coverage is tantamount to bringing a knife to a gun fight. How many data scientists work for news organizations? We are falling behind, and we risk not being able to explain to our readers and users how their representatives get elected or defeated.

None of this is to say that we need to completely abandon our ways of covering elections. Horse-race coverage is and should be a part of campaign coverage, because in many respects elections are like horse races. Things can change rapidly, and small things can have big impact. We still should be on the ground, talking to voters, showing up at town halls and covering debates. We still need to show up and do the legwork.

But if we can’t appreciate, much less understand, what modern campaigns are doing to win elections, how can we hope to explain elections? If we don’t collect at least some of the information available to us – realizing that we can’t get our hands on everything that the campaigns do – we’ll miss the story. Elections will become even bigger surprises to us, and then how long will it be before readers start to ask whether we actually know the people and places we cover?

Surprises make the news. Some of my favorite stories from the 2004 presidential election are in a book by my friends Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger, then of the Los Angeles Times. Here’s one anecdote from the key state of Ohio:

One suburban African American woman in Ohio, for example, told us that though she tends to vote Democratic, she was deluged in 2004 with calls, e-mail messages and other forms of communication by Republicans who somehow knew that she was a mother with children in private schools, an active church attendee, an abortion opponent and a golfer.

Think about what this kind of thing means. It means that we cannot assume that the campaign visible to the mass audience is the same campaign that’s being pitched to individuals and groups around the nation, and that winning coalitions can be built not just by harnessing large groups (unions, religious voters, etc.) but also by piecing them together in small units. President Bush’s margin in Ohio in 2004? About 2.5 percent. The only thing that I don’t like about this anecdote is that Wallsten and Hamburger’s book appeared nearly two years later. Is there any evidence that we as journalists have closed the gap since then?

To understand how elections are now being waged, we need to have as many of the tools as do the campaigns. We need to build our own storehouses of data – voter registration, voter history, Census, campaign finance, advertisements and more. We need to be able to tap into the rich stream of material that’s being created and disseminated every day. We need to be able to see the value in small data points that can lead to bigger things.

Elections are great stories. They deserve to be told from a position of confidence and knowledge. We have work to do.