Throw Out the Conventional Wisdom

It may be time to revise the conventional wisdom of political campaigns.

The tools we each use to make decisions about candidates and issues are dramatically – and rather suddenly – different.  Therefore, the “rules of thumb” that observers rely on need to be replaced with some new thinking.

Over a decade ago I had the realization that the trope of House Speaker Tip O’Niell was increasingly obsolete.  O’Niell is credited with saying “all politics is local,” I advanced the notion to “all politics is personal.”  My point, informed largely by Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone and the advancement of technology, is that people no longer think in terms of community or neighborhood.  Instead, we all desire a more immediate relationship, thus voting behavior is driven not by what is deemed best for the locality, but the individual person.

Since that time campaigns have moved into micro-targeting and a reliance on databases to determine, measure, track, and influence, the individual tastes of potential voters.  The internet allows a person to purchase the exact items they want, not just what is in the local mall.  We choose were we get our news from, select who we interact with and decide the terms of those interactions.  There is no longer a shared experience of watching the same news, reading the same paper, and participating in the same economy.  As politics follow life, our political decisions have been extraordinarily personal, if not wholly self-centered.

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan challenged another trope.  “The oldest cliché in presidential politics is that no normal person cares about the election until after Labor Day, when the kids are back in school. It’s a cliché because it’s always been true.”  But no more argues Noonan.

“No one can hide anymore: politics will find you. And you wind up having an impression of a candidate sooner than you meant to, and it hardens into an opinion earlier than it used to.”  Media is everywhere, go anyway and a television is on, email reaches us at all hours of the day, thus, candidates are in non-stop competition to get noticed.  Even before we know the policies, or listen to the rhetoric we already have an impression.  Impressions become opinions, and opinions once made are hard to change.

Writing in Wednesday’s Commentary, John Podhoretz, observed that the world is very different from “when Gallup figured out most of what we know about how polling should work in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.”  As a result of the changes, political polling is dying.  “The polling business, which must therefore resort either to far more expensive ways of finding the right people to sample or to more “weighting,” which just turns pollsters into people who guess things, and whose guesses are as susceptible to biases.”

In the past seven days pollsters have been eager to prove Podhoretz correct.  The recent CBS/NY Times/Quinnipiac poll oversampled Democrat voters by predicting Democrat turnout on election day to be twice what it was in the historically high Democrat turnout of 2008.   The normally reliable Pew went further, their most recent poll oversampled Democrats by a full 19 percentage points.  The Economist tamped down the absurdity by only giving Democrats a built-in 10 point advantage.

Already the old is giving way to the new.  Twitter has announced it will (somehow) measure national interest in candidates by rating mentions in Tweets.  The idea of measuring the mood of the country, almost in real time, has merit, but should the practice gain traction it will only be a matter of minutes before campaigns actively try to influence those measurement with fake Twitter accounts and so on.

There has never been much science in Political Science, but we may be in a moment of maximum entropy.  Campaigns will adjust – particularly as it becomes more feasible and inexpensive to simply ask a prospective voter what they want – but until then, we must be very wary of insights and analysis based on obsolete assumptions.


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