OPINION8 November 2012

Partying like the rockstars we are


Having got the party started last week, Emily Hunt ends the celebrations with a final look at the data behind the events of Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, that led to Barack Obama securing another four year term as the President of the United States.

In fact, apart from President Obama, “big data” seems to be the biggest winner of the election cycle.

Pundits and talking heads ‘going with their gut’ or ‘going with their ideology’ are officially out of fashion. There are concerns for Donald Trump’s wellbeing after some of his zanier election night tweets. Karl Rove’s tantrum on Fox News was not his best moment. Dick Morris is hopefully recovering somewhere quiet. And while these examples are all on the Republican side, I’d have plenty of Democratic alternatives if the election had gone the other way.

There has always been a bit of tension in election coverage between the “science” of prediction – like Nate Silver and the other folks building statistical models — and the “art” of prediction, like those who go with their gut, a sense of the economic situation of the country, and the way they perceive the mood of the country to be. The “art” guys have been the big names in the media for a long time, occasionally using polling to back their angle, but really not being led by the data.

But as researchers, we know that this success of data over gut – and the increased glamour suddenly applied to our profession – is likely to be fleeting. Fundamentally, during the midterm elections in two years time, the media, the voters and those who just like to watch, will expect predictive modeling to be on a par with what saw in this cycle. And we all know that it won’t happen.

During the midterm elections, there will be far fewer data points to go into “poll of poll” aggregate models. There will be fewer data points to soften out the failings of each individual poll.

And here in the UK, during the next general election, our media and friends and family will all want to know why it is that we don’t have our own Nate Silver. As their eyes glaze over we’ll still be trying to explain the difference between polling in our parliamentary system versus America’s electoral college system. Perhaps, instead of trying to explain, we should all agree to smile and nod, perhaps get another glass of wine, and bask in the knowledge that we are all a little cooler now than we were. And leave it at that.

One final fun fact:

  • No one is talking about the fact that Puerto Rico voted for statehood. Was there any real polling on this in the media? With the assumption that they’ll lean heavily Democratic, this could have interesting implications in the Senate.

Emily Hunt is director of insights at Edelman Berland, Edelman’s insights and analytics subsidiary. She is a dual US/UK citizen, and has a strong interest in politics on both sides of the Atlantic. Emily has an MA in Political Campaign Management from New York University and started her career as a political operative in the US before moving into polling. You can follow her on Twitter at @emilyinpublic or find out more about her here.