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Held March 31 at the Center for Government and International Studies in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Political Analytics Conference is the brainchild of Harvard University academics Ryan Enos and Kirk Goldsberry. Enos is a fellow and professor of government at the school, specializing in political psychology. Goldsberry is a former visiting scholar whose expertise in visual communication and spatial reasoning led him to a career in sports analytics. He began as a sports journalist, presenting innovative new ways of understanding basketball to readers at ESPN’s Grantland, before ascending to his current role as the vice president of strategic research for the San Antonio Spurs.
Sponsored by Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science and the Center for American Political Studies, the conference is modeled after MIT’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. What South by Southwest is to multimedia and Comic-Con is to Hollywood entertainment, Sloan is to the sports intelligentsia. Now in its eleventh year, the conference picks up where Michael Lewis’s Moneyball left off, using principles derived primarily from the economics world to push forward more sophisticated means of understanding and driving success in sports. Goldsberry says it’s time that deeper understanding finds its way beyond athletics and into the realm of politics and political discourse.
“In a weird way, sports is ahead of politics in using analytical reasoning to uncover, to explore, and to confirm ideas,” he says. “We want to provide a forum on an annual basis that brings together quantitative thinking and political discourse.”
“I’ve been looking for something like this for the last couple of years,” says Travis Bunner, a data scientist with polling firm EMC Research who has attended both installments of the conference. “I respect what these guys are doing because there is nothing like this.”
Less unique was the topic of inquiry the conference pursued, which was the same as had been featured at innumerable symposiums since November, not to mention countless dinner tables discussions and barroom debates. Attendees sought to answer one overriding question: How had a fear-mongering reality TV star and purported real estate titan been elected the nation’s forty-fifth president, and why hadn’t any of them seen it coming?
In the days since November, people have grasped for all kinds of explanations. By the readings of some, the election signaled that the nation’s gender biases were more intractable than its racial ones. Others saw race and racial identity as the deciding factors. Political operatives suggested a tactical failure. Some historians called it the inevitable result of ongoing demographic trends. The Harvard conference saw experts testify to all of these as causes of our national blindsiding, including a set of qualitative perspectives on how blind one had to be in order to feel surprised.
The powers and dangers of microtargeting, the lines Google and Facebook draw between their user data and voter registration data, the role of forecasting, race, the way we disseminate political information overall—each was cited as a data point during the day’s expansive postmortem.
In hindsight, according to experts, it was the forecasting models that had given Clinton hopefuls what turned out to be a false sense of security. After years of advance polling bearing out in eventual elections, Silver suggested that the masses overlearned their lessons, saying, “People took 2012 to be the iron law of how politics works, and I think came to some sophomoric conclusions because of that.”
Perhaps the group guiltiest of misunderstanding, misinterpreting, or misrepresenting the data was the national media—some of whom were on hand for confession.
Looking back to the 2012 election, when Mitt Romney’s camp insisted all the way up to the finish line that polling trends would prove to be incorrect, MSNBC television journalist Steve Kornacki conceded that his on-air performance during this latest election night was shaped by a sense of certainty brought on by the leading indicators. “We all came in with a certain expectation [of] where things were likely to go … and the exit polls suggested that was probably where it was going to go,” he told the crowd of about seventy people.
In an industry that puts a huge premium on being first, it was suggested that part of what made reporters treat a Clinton victory as inevitable was a fear of eventual embarrassment.
“I think the iconic moment from 2012 that hung over this entire election in the eyes of the media was Karl Rove, on the set of Fox News, saying, ‘It’s not over! They called it, but it’s not over,’” Kornacki said.
For MTV News political columnist Ana Marie Cox, the election’s biggest surprise would be Trump’s ability to win over college-educated white women, despite his numerous public statements demeaning women and allegations of sexual misconduct.
“It’s one thing to know intellectually that something can happen,” Cox said. “It’s another thing to be able to internalize it and believe it’s a real thing.”