(This is the second in a three-part series exploring the reasons for the Clinton loss and the lessons that loss can teach former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign this year. Part one can be viewed below – WHY HILLARY CLINTON LOST AND WHAT THAT CAN TEACH THE BIDEN CAMPAIGN.)
By Larry Levine –
Be the first person to utter “regression analysis and standard deviations” at a Democratic political strategy meeting and you are almost certain to win any argument.
Who would argue with one who speaks such lofty words? Certainly not candidates, consultants or party leaders, who are awed by this mystic language but most likely have little or no background in the subject. In these discussions, “data” becomes the demarcation of “intelligence” and it can lead down dangerous paths to fatal decisions.
Some of those decisions were manifested in the Hillary Clinton campaign for president in 2016. Decisions like: “The data say we always carry Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin so we don’t need to campaign there. Let’s go try to win Arizona.”
The result: “we” lost all four states.
Was the data bad? Probably not. After all, Barack Obama carried Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin twice. Arizona, on the other hand, was a fantasy from the start. But if you didn’t have to campaign in those other three states, you had to divert the resources to some other state.
A skeptic could say data is good when you win and bad when you lose. What can be fatal, however, is when data becomes the decision-maker, when datameisters call the shots and there’s no one around with the political moxie to say, “We carried those states because Obama went there and campaigned on the economy.”
The result: candidate Trump made nearly twice as many appearances in those three states as did candidate Clinton and Trump won the three states by razor-thin margins, less than 77,000 votes combined, and there went enough Electoral College votes to win the election.
The current manifestation of the notion that data wins elections gained purchase out of the first Obama presidential campaign in 2008. Datameisters sang their own praises as the architects of the successful campaign and commentators and pundits bought into the mantra. It was hogwash at the time and forever should be consigned to hogwash in the pages of political history.
Barak Obama was elected President for many reasons. He benefited from a massive
turnout of African American voters. He was running in the wake of disastrous George W. Bush foreign and domestic policies and a Bush economy that was in free-fall. He was lucky enough to have an opponent who thought Sarah Palin was a good idea. Data probably played a role in the campaign, but to credit it as the reason for the victory is to ignore the realities of the time and circumstances in which the campaign was fought. It also ignores the fact that a seasoned political pro named David Axelrod was heading the campaign and using the data to help.
Out of the Obama success of 2008, there evolved an industry that made “data” the
four-letter dirty word it is in today’s electoral politics, usually in the hands of far less qualified tacticians than Axelrod.
An article published in Wired Magazine in July 2016 told of a team of data crunchers who masterminded the two Obama campaigns and then set up a political data business. The thrust of the article was that this same team was going to make Hillary Clinton the next President. Leader of the team, according to the article, was Dan Wagner, credited as architect of the Obama campaign data program in 2008. He was quoted as saying, “Data’s taking over the world, and anyone who isn’t building toward that is going to be left behind.”
My tech-savvy very smart son John sent me the article in October 2016. I didn’t have time to read it until late November. Then I phoned him and said, “This quote reads a whole lot different after the election than it did before.”
This Democratic Party obsession with finding a data-driven way to win elections is not new. It dates back nearly half a century in my own experience.
In 1974, long before computers became standard furnishings in election campaign headquarters, at a time when everything had to be done by hand, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) distributed a targeting handbook to Democratic candidates across the nation.
I was heading a congressional campaign along the central coast of California. The district was deemed “safe Republican”, but the late Congressman and acknowledge political genius Phillip Burton, who was heading the DCCC, believed “in the year of Watergate” we might be able to pull off an upset.
I assigned two volunteers the task of searching out the data to implement the system in the DCCC manual. Factors included precinct results from the Nixon-McGovern election two years earlier, results of other recent elections, voter registration and turnout numbers, voter demographics, household income, households with swimming pools, etc.
We got about 25 percent of the way through the work, when I asked one of the volunteers how things were going. “Take a look,” she said. and she handed me the work sheets.
“This is B.S., isn’t it?” I asked.
“Yep,” she said
I asked, “Why didn’t you tell me before this?”
“I don’t know you well enough yet,” she said. For the next 24 years, until the time of her death, she worked in my campaign consulting firm.
Democratic campaigns across the country were targeting everything based on the results of the Nixon-McGovern race. Neither of them would be on the ballot and Nixon had gone from an overwhelming victory to the brink of impeachment and resignation. The entire political landscape had changed.
I called Phillip Burton and told him I was abandoning the project. I told him why and he laughed. “You’re right,” he said. The manual was distributed not because it was valid, but because internal politics at the DCCC demanded it. Then Phillip asked if we could win the election. “Not if Nixon resigns,” I answered. He did and we lost.
Did it make any more sense to conclude that because Barack Obama won certain areas by going there and campaigning on the economy that Hillary Clinton could win those areas without going there?
Is there a way back from the 2016 disaster for the Democratic Party and the Biden campaign? Of course. Data in a campaign is a tool, not a strategy. Gather all the data and put it in the hands of political pros who know how to analyze voter turnout, target messages, communicate with voters and run such things as get-out-the-vote programs. Figure out your most trusted allies in the six or seven battleground states and keep in tight contact with them. Give them the resources they need, and if anyone says “regression analysis and standard deviations” don’t invite them to the next meeting.
(Part three of this series will explore where the Clinton campaign was off message, how it got that way, and the messaging the Biden campaign should consider this year.)