The Science of an Upset

By  Kathryn Schiller Wurster

Donald Trump won the presidency last night, taking the electoral college despite what appears to be Clinton’s narrow win in the popular vote. The results surprised nearly everyone in the media and polling world, who had almost entirely predicted a wide margin of victory for Hillary Clinton. Even Nate Silver’s blog FiveThirtyEight, which has earned a reputation for crunching numbers in exquisite fashion, had Clinton with much better odds throughout most of the race, with the final odds at 70/30 Clinton to Trump the day before the election.

But all the numbers crunchers depend on polls and statistical methods that aren’t reliable and now seem remarkably old fashioned. A Nature article examined this problem in mid-October and blamed the decline of landlines, rise of mobile phones, “shy voter” behavior, and unreliable online polls. At one time in history, calling people on the phone and asking them questions may have been the best way to find out their opinions and predict their likely behavior. But this election has just proved that it doesn’t always work. The UK saw a similar upset against the pollsters’ predictions in the Brexit vote.

The problem is what people say on the phone is likely driven by lots of other factors, especially when the candidates and poll questions are controversial. Conducting phone surveys today also relies on an increasingly outdated mode of social interaction, likely biasing the samples. Online polls likely have their own biases; they also rely on people answering honestly and having a representative sample. In the end, it is clear that asking a small subset of people questions cannot be relied on to give us a real picture of what likely voters are actually going to do.

At the same time, we have more data streams about people, and correlations to their behavior, than ever before. Advertisers can target microgroups based on incredibly detailed demographics. Each of us leave vast trails of data everywhere we go; these trails could be mined to answer all the questions pollsters ask (and likely much more). Social network analysis should be able to tell us who the influencers are and measure their impact on the outcomes.

Now we need a team of statisticians and big data analysts and marketing gurus to look back at trends in data from a wide range of sources in the lead-up to the election. We need a forensic investigator to try to find correlations and trends that we missed along the way and connect the dots that led us here. The margins were narrow, so it may be that – for now – the degree of uncertainty we have to accept is still greater than the margin of error in the actual results. But we should be able to do better than this.

Electing for the Future

By Charles Mueller

Today is one of the most cherished traditions of the United States. It is Election Day, a day where the people get a chance to voice their opinion about who should represent them in US, State, and Local governments.  Every year though this beloved day is riddled with controversy as we debate how we vote, when we vote, where we vote, who should vote, who we vote for, and why the entire process just seems destined to always fail us in some way.

I’m tired of having these same old debates.  None of these conversations recognize the real problem: year after year we refuse to accept that our entire system of governance and electing officials to represent us is not just archaic, but centuries outdated.  We live in a world of advancing technology, a world where my refrigerator can restock itself, people can transmit thoughts to each other using neurotechnology, and we can not only educate ourselves about virtually all of human history with the click of a button, but we can also communicate our thoughts and opinions just as fast.  Our society is fundamentally different in practically every way than the one that existed during the time of our founding fathers and it’s time we stop trying to make their system work for our way of life.

It is time we rethink the idea of only casting our vote once a year for those who represent us.  Why can’t Election Day be, in a sense, every day?  Why don’t we create a system where we can continually voice our confidence in our leaders, helping put the appropriate amount of pressure to keep them honest, transparent and effective as policymakers?  It’s not like we don’t have the technology to do it…

It is also time we rethink the very structure of our government and the way it utilizes things like S&T to carry out its mission to serve and protect the people.  Why can’t we create a government that is efficient and instead of being decades behind utilizing technology, is a pioneer of how to incorporate technology to carry out the job of governance?  Why do we continue to waste our time and energy complaining about the shortcomings of our governance system instead of using that time and energy to fix it?

None of this will be easy, but all of it is necessary.  The future is one where S&T will continue to change the fabric of society seemingly overnight and we need a new process for defining what government is, how it works, and how the people are involved in this next phase of our existence.  So as we all stand in the long lines today that are too part of the Election Day tradition, let’s use that time to talk with our friends and neighbors about the future of democracy and the United States, instead of continuing to complain about how awful everything is.

Let’s work together to make the future better and hopefully some day down the road, Election Day will be a time we elect some individuals bold enough to lead us into this brave new world.

If you want to understand 21st Century ‘Electioneering’, look to Cicero

Jennifer McArdle
In the first century BC, Marcus Tullius Cicero ran for consul, the highest office in the Roman Republic. His younger brother, Quintus, sought to advise his elder brother on how to effectively ‘social engineer’ the electorate. In Quintus Tullius Cicero’s The Commentariolum Petitionis, Quintus directs Marcus to wage a campaign based on micro targeting, delivering targeted campaign messages (which often contradicted each other) to various members of the Roman populace, in order to gain their support. Quintus’ campaign strategy delivered Marcus victory, demonstrating the power of tailored messaging.
The use of behavioral science and big data by campaigns to effectively model voter behavior is adding new relevance to Cicero’s 2000 year-old campaign strategy—micro targeting is once again in vogue.
The 21st century has witnessed the emergence of ‘data driven campaigns.’ Campaigns are combining big data with behavioral science and emergent computational methods to model individual voter behavior. By combining the data located in public databases, which include information such as party registration, voting history, political donations, vehicle registration, and real estate records with those of commercial databases, campaigns have been able to effectively target individuals. This micro targeting extends beyond the ability to identify which voters to contact, but to the content of the message as well. Philip N. Howard in his book, New Media Campaigns and the Managed Citizen, notes that in the weeks prior to the 2000 presidential election, two middle-age, conservative, female voters logged on to the same Republican website, from different parts of the country. The first, a voter from Clemson, South Carolina saw headlines about the Republican commitment to 2nd Amendment protections and their pro-life stance. The second, based in Manhattan, was never shown those headlines. The website’s statistical model suggested that the former female would respond positively to those headlines, while the latter likely supported some measure of gun control and a woman’s right to choose.
While micro targeting in Rome arguably made the process more democratic—Marcus was not a member of the nobility and would have typically been eliminated from the candidacy—today’s use of micro targeting has the potential to erode democracy. These computational models allow parties to acquire information about voters without directly asking those same voters a question. With this information in hand, campaigns can opaquely micro-target individuals, selectively providing information that fits their partisan and campaign issue bias, while removing platforms that may not align with their interests. Essentially, campaigns are able to generate filter bubbles, which reinforce individual viewpoints, while removing differing ideas or philosophies from their search results. Voters are not even aware that micro-targeting has occurred.
While it is unlikely that micro targeting can be removed completely from politics, there may be a mechanism to ensure the integrity of the democratic process in politics. While difficult, given the opaque nature of micro targeting, attempting to create a ‘sunshine movement’ during campaigns by creating non-partisan sites that highlight each candidates’ individual platforms could help to ensure that voters know each candidates true views. ‘Data driven campaigns’ need not erode democracy, but should they remain as is, they may do just that.