The Non-Prophets: At a Harvard Conference, America’s Top Political Analysts Say the 2016 Election Wasn’t Their Fault | News Feature | Indy Week

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The Non-Prophets: At a Harvard Conference, America’s Top Political Analysts Say the 2016 Election Wasn’t Their Fault



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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.

As Harvard undergraduate Alexandra Abrahams, who presented the team’s findings, explained, “We started out trying to answer the question of to what extent did racial resentment motivate turnout in the 2016 election.” To calculate this, the group concocted a “racial conservatism” index, which tracked whether Obama voters had migrated to supporting Trump, crossreferencing their answers to racially charged questions like, “Do white people have advantages because of the color of their skin?” The findings weren’t conclusive, but a new model was built that could better judge that question as new data becomes available.

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 Civis Analytics, the direst issue facing American politics could be emerging concerns about the imperfection of survey research, which politicians rely on not only to win elections but also to shape policy. Citing the downtrend in response rates, Lackey expressed alarm that changing habits and interests make people less likely to answer phone calls of unknown origins or spend upward of a half-hour answering detailed questions about politics, all of which diminishes the well of data from which researchers divine insight.

“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 in a hurricane warning. The forecasters aren’t saying, ‘There’s a ninety-five percent chance that you won’t be hit by a hurricane.’ If Trump is a category-five hurricane outcome, we should probably take shelter and be prepared for that.”

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.

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