03 September 2012

It's Alive!!

My beloved Triage appears to be alive and well, but in stealth mode. I've not actually had the pleasure of meeting it. But the Times yesterday kind of let the cat out of the bag. If this isn't a description of Triage driven campaign building, I'd be hard pressed to do better. What's galling is that the Democrats happily ignored the issues in 2010, and have set us on the road to permanent minority rule. Just like a South American junta.

Issenberg, a he by the way, is publishing a book, "The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns". Alas, I wasn't a source. No royalties for me.

Over the last decade, almost entirely out of view, campaigns have modernized their techniques in such a way that nearly every member of the political press now lacks the specialized expertise to interpret what's going on. Campaign professionals have developed a new conceptual framework for understanding what moves votes. It's as if restaurant critics remained oblivious to a generation's worth of new chefs' tools and techniques and persisted in describing every dish that came out of the kitchen as either "grilled" or "broiled."

My first serious post college position was in Washington, DC (for the Civil Service Commission, which no longer exists; bet you didn't know that), in a group titled Office of Analytic Methods. I was the economist/econometrician, while one of the other worker bees was AbD in psychometrics. For reasons not yet discussed, I've long viewed any study prefixed psych- with suspicion; a means for the venal to manipulate the naive'. Advertising, "Mad Men" style, is the archetype. Eventually, we got "The Selling of the President 1968". Some 40 years on, and the number crunching has gotten evermore convoluted, possibly more sophisticated.

Oh, did I mention that I wandered into my local Barnes & Noble to see what's newish in the data/stat world? Yes, yes I did. And what to my wondering eyes did appear but "R For Dummies". I suppose that R will become the next Excel: any knucklehead will feel empowered to play math stat in the office, just as Excel empowered cube monkeys to self-identify as financial analysts. And we now know what that produced.

Campaigns have borrowed techniques from the social sciences, including behavioral psychology and statistical modeling. They have access to private collections of data and from their analysis of it have been able to reach empirical, if tentative, conclusions about what works and what doesn't.

And to quote my humble self, from Triage:

There is, available to the apparatchiks, both public data (the FEC here in the States) and data developed by their own organization. This latter data is, amorphously, expenditures (the source data that ends up at the FEC; their own they have, but opposition data must wait for FEC and may well not be sufficiently timely) and outcomes; perhaps simple polling results; perhaps some focus group results; perhaps some name recognition surveys. Social network data mining is also big these days (although I've not done enough research to know for sure that this could be a data source for outcomes).

Issenberg throws in the towel:

Breathless, and often fact-free, stories about "data mining" and "microtargeting" soon became plentiful. But few journalists had access to any of the campaigns' data, or even much understanding of the statistical techniques they used. We found ourselves at the mercy of self-promoting consultants who described how they were changing politics by ignoring stodgy old demographics and instead pinpointing voters according to their lifestyles. We played along, guilelessly imputing new mythic powers to microtargeting. In many retellings, data analysis became the reason George W. Bush was re-elected.

There has been, in the wake of Ryan's perversion, hand wringing from some of the press that fact-checking (which effort draws the ire of the Right Wingnuts, not surprisingly) in the face of such lying will take too much effort to police. The message is that Right Wingnuts will send a tsunami of falsehood, much never exposed as forcefully as the assaults. "Swift Boats" 24/7. Welcome to the new Gulag.

Indeed, the telling numbers wouldn't be polls but the individual probability scores that Mr. Obama's targeters developed (and update weekly) to predict how likely each voter in the country is to support him.

As Triage described, high granularity data, external to the campaigns can be used. One of the not so secret secrets in the quant world is that private databases exist, for a fee, to very fine detail. As you bend the mind, so you bend the finger on the voting lever.

But particularly in a polarized race like this one, where fewer than one-tenth of voters are moving between candidates, the most advanced thinking inside a campaign is just as likely to focus on fine-tuning statistical models to refine vote counts and improve techniques for efficiently identifying and mobilizing existing supporters.

So, we find:

...Mr. Romney deployed statistical models to track Iowa supporters and current vote counts for his rivals. It amounted to a largely invisible 21st-century upgrade to the traditional infrastructure of offices, phone banks and staff that most journalists visualized when they tossed around the term "organization."

Back in the 1980s I applied to, and was accepted into, the American University (the one in Washington, DC) Economic Journalism graduate program. For various reasons, I didn't get to go (you know who you are). I still have, more so recently with the advent of R in particular, much regret that I wasn't able to watch and participate in this evolution.

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