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If Obama Wins on Tuesday, Give the Nerds More Credit

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, November 5 2012

Nate Silver is a math nerd. And due to his skill in analyzing poll numbers and developing sophisticated models for predicting elections, he's become something of a household name among anyone who cares about American politics. Of late, he's even become the center of a controversy over whether a great deal of political reporting and punditry on the ups and downs of the horse race is actually much ado about nothing, since the data shows that the polls actually don't change all that much in response to specific events or debate performances or gaffes. It's a bit disconcerting to many people to consider the possibility that the real story of the presidential campaign isn't in the daily news and chatter on cable shows, but might be found elsewhere, in the hard metrics of voter attitudes and turnout.

But at least Silver practices his craft in public, and he bases his prognostications on publicly available data. The largely unwritten story of the 2012 election battle includes a different group of math nerds, data scientists and predictive modelers, who specialize in figuring out which voters might be persuaded to vote for their candidate and then making sure that they maximize the number of people who actually come out to vote that way. We know very little about their work for two big reasons. First, neither campaign has wanted to tip off their opponent to what they're doing, and second, with just a few rare exceptions, political reporters and their story-assignment editors aren't even looking to find out.

From our end here at techPresident, we've worked to chip away at that opacity as best as we can, by doing our own reporting on the campaigns' use of tech, data and microtargeting. To be honest, we know we haven't gotten even half the story. The Obama campaign has drastically limited access to this side of its campaign operation. And the Romney campaign, while somewhat more willing to talk to the press about its use of tech, has less to show on this front. Instead, they have taken advantage of the press's own naivety about technology's role in politics (and their need to present readers with a story line that suggests both campaigns are equally matched) to burble about how a higher percentage of its supporters are "talking about" their candidate on Facebook, or how they are using online advertising to target segments of the electorate. The harder but more effective work of actually determining which voters are persuadable and then which methods will be the most useful in moving them is shrouded in secrecy.

It's not as if we don't know that something big is going on inside the black box that is the Obama campaign. As a recent campaign memo from top Obama campaign staff noted,

"Our neighborhood teams have had millions of conversations with persuadable voters. Each battleground state has been running an aggressive and comprehensive organizing program targeted toward undecided voters. The all-of-the-above organizing program included targeted phone calls, door knocks, direct mail, individualized digital advertising, smart television targeting, and an integrated digital follow-up program to undecided voters." [Emphasis added.]

More than 125,000,000 personal phone calls or door knocks have been made by volunteers as of the start of last weekend, the campaign noted. As we've argued here since the start of this cycle, the Obama campaign's big data strategy, married to a major emphasis on local field organizing, could well be what delivers the extra few points of turnout that will determine the balance in key states.

If you are one of the million people who has activated the "Obama 2012" app on Facebook, for example, then you've gotten one small glimpse of this machinery in action. Over the past few days Obama 2012 users have been getting lots of nudges; I've had several asking me to remind friends in swing states like Colorado and Ohio that they can vote early, or urging me to remind them to vote. The Romney "Commit to Mitt" app is similar, but it has only 30,000 users, by comparison.

As Sasha Issenberg, one of the few reporters who has really drilled down on this subject, reported recently in Slate, the Obama campaign's investment in analytical modeling of voter behavior is light-years ahead of anything Republicans have developed for this cycle. "When it comes to the use of voter data and analytics, the two sides appear to be as unmatched as they have ever been on a specific electioneering tactic in the modern campaign era," he writes.

Tomorrow, Nate Silver isn't the only math nerd whose models will be put to the test. The nerds inside the Obama campaign will also be tested too.