Opinion Top of the Ticket

Obama's data geeks have made Karl Rove and Dick Morris obsolete

After what the Obama campaign accomplished with a backroom filled with 20-something math geeks, American presidential politics will never be the same.

For decades, candidates have put their faith in political consultants whose gut instincts, ability to read polls and track records of victories made them look like magicians with an astounding array of tricks up their sleeves.

Mitt Romney had one such man at his side throughout the 2012 campaign, a guy named Stuart Stevens who could claim to have helped elect more Republican governors and senators than any contemporary media consultant. He also had the assistance of Karl Rove and his lavishly funded, pro-GOP "super PAC" -- Rove being the man who made George W. Bush governor of Texas and then president. In addition, Romney got all kinds of unsolicited advice from other political gurus, such as Dick Morris, the sleazy character who helped Bill Clinton seize the political center and win reelection in 1996.

PHOTOS: Top of the Ticket cartoons

Men such as Stevens, Rove and Morris built their reputations, careers and fortunes on the perception that they knew more about the mechanics of politics than anyone else, but after this year’s election, they and their ilk may be going the way of dinosaurs. The new kids on the block that are pushing them to extinction do not necessarily know that much about history or politics, but they do know numbers.

Los Angeles Times reporters Christi Parsons and Kathleen Hennessey took a post-election peek into a couple of semi-secret rooms located at the Obama campaign headquarters in Chicago. For more than a year, a group of what the reporters described as "math geeks and data wizards" worked long days creating elaborate statistical models to determine which voters were likely to vote for the president. And they were not just working in broad terms -- young people, single women, Asians, et al. They were identifying individuals and providing data to field workers who went to the doors of those people and persuaded them to vote.

The veteran political managers in the campaign took a bold risk by moving beyond traditional techniques and the usual pack of consultants to, instead, put the political fate of the president in the hands of a bunch of numbers-crunching kids. As Parsons and Hennessey wrote:

"For campaign professionals, that is a major leap. Politics long has been ruled by truisms, conventional wisdom and intuition, with millions spent based on a murky mix of polling and focus groups. The shift to data-driven decision-making has been gradual and steady -- becoming increasingly sophisticated as political parties amass more information about individual voters through traditional means, such as polls, and new ones, such as data mining."

The result was obvious on election night. While, on Fox News, Rove was sputtering and fuming, insisting that the result in Ohio could not be true because it did not match his own expectations, and while on the same cable network Morris was flabbergasted that voting patterns had not returned to the norm of 2004, the young math nerds in Chicago were watching state after state fall exactly as they had predicted.

Political romantics like to think of elections in terms of historical trends, big issues, ideological passions and the ebb and flow of momentum. What they have not realized until now is that the underpinning of all those elements, simple human choices, can be sifted, quantified and predicted with remarkable precision if enough data can be amassed.

The Obama team did it and that is how they found a clear path to victory in an election that was not necessarily theirs for the taking. No doubt Republicans will be recruiting teams of young mathematicians and data miners to help them emulate what the Obama crew has done. Meanwhile, a whole generation of political Svengalis may shortly find their status diminished to the level of tarot card flippers and palm readers.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • Right wingers careen into craziness to explain Obama's victory
    Right wingers careen into craziness to explain Obama's victory

    President Obama’s reelection has caused right-wingers to become completely unhinged. They are purple-faced and apoplectic, convinced that an ignorant horde of government-dependent social leeches has destroyed traditional America and banished God from the country.

  • Billionaires wasted millions trying to buy the 2012 election
    Billionaires wasted millions trying to buy the 2012 election

    Never has so much money been spent in an American political campaign with so little effect. Billionaires, both anonymous and named, threw hundreds of millions of dollars into the presidential race and several Senate contests, but failed to elect a Republican president or bring about a GOP...

  • Obama's fourth-quarter foreign policy surprises
    Obama's fourth-quarter foreign policy surprises

    Six months ago, President Obama's foreign policy looked stymied. Negotiations with Israel and the Palestinians were at a dead end. Russia was gaining ground in eastern Ukraine. U.S. efforts to end the war in Syria were ineffective. A new extremist army, Islamic State, was marching into Iraq.

  • Ukraine should put Russia to the test
    Ukraine should put Russia to the test

    Ukraine is now strong enough to seize the initiative to create a lasting cease-fire in its Donbas Rust Belt, currently occupied by Russia and its proxies. And Russia may be weak enough to be receptive. It is in Kiev's interest to do so. A state of permanent war with Russia would damage...

  • The great fear of the great outdoors
    The great fear of the great outdoors

    Americans find ourselves in a period — arguably, the first in our nation's history — when our unease about being in nature is coming to outweigh our desire for it. We have a growing intolerance for inconvenience, a feeling well captured by the suburban fifth-grader who memorably...

  • Animals and humans sometimes kill their young -- the question is why
    Animals and humans sometimes kill their young -- the question is why

    Among the endless stream of bad news in the media, every now and then something occurs that it is so horrendous that it stops us in our tracks. That has happened once again with Tuesday's massacre at a school in Peshawar, Pakistan. Among the victims: 132 children who died — many of them...

Comments
Loading