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All these swirling, complicating factors were explored during the conference’s competitive “hackathon” component, which saw teams comprising Harvard students, data science and visualization pros, and politicos coming together over a shared set of election data to try to extrapolate new and deeper insights. The winning team attempted to quantify the very anxieties Cramer and Baretta described.
For Matt Lackey, a data expert with experience on Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign who now serves as vice president of research and development for
“Nonresponse bias is a real problem,” Lackey said. “If we lose our ability to accurately measure what people think, we lose our ability to govern.”
As for solving the challenges of a potentially ungovernable democracy, Americans will need to reconcile their discomfort with the differences between big numbers and sure things.
“People tend to underestimate the likelihood of relatively low-probability events,” said New York Times Upshot reporter Nate Cohn. He continued: “Weather forecasters treat this problem way differently. … If you have a five percent chance that you’ll be hit by a hurricane tomorrow, you’re
Washington Post political scientist John Sides warned against over-interpreting a single election. “Had Clinton gotten about a percentage point more of the popular vote, she would have won the Electoral College, and we would have had a conversation about data and analytics that’s the exact polar opposite of the one we’re having now,” he pointed out.
Even if they didn’t call a perfect game, analysts in this realm played a key role in the 2016 presidential election. As in professional sports, the influence of data cannot simply be measured by whether the ultimate victors opted for analytically driven strategies. If the day had a persistent theme, it was that the low probability of a Trump victory and a misunderstanding of what that meant were perhaps the deciding factors that shaped the narrative around the campaign, which could have in turn dramatically affected the electorate.
At Harvard, Sides couldn’t help but paraphrase another old, venerated institution. “The real lesson from this election is that data and analytics are the worst way to run a campaign, except for all the other ways,” he said with resignation.
The truism held up to the scrutiny of a room full of data scientists, by any calculation or measurement. But if the Political Analytics Conference taught attendees anything, it was to be a little careful of looking backward when trying to think forward.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.