Strategy lesson: voter suppression loses to data crunching

A few weeks ago, I was listening to a radio interview with a guy named Nate Silver. He’d created a mathematical model for crunching all the data from all the political polls, plus looking at various past patterns and so on, and distilling all this into amazingly accurate election predictions. His accuracy rating alone was persuasive, but I also understood some of his remarks about how stats, math and probabilities work and why his model of them in particular worked. I was convinced.

Nervously, I went to his blog on the NY times to see what outcome he was predicting for the election – if they talked about this in the interview, I hadn’t heard that part. I was nervous because I knew his data was good, and therefore if he predicted an outcome I didn’t like, my only hope would be for a miracle. Instead, I found he was predicting an Obama win and a slim Democrat majority in the Senate – results I could live with.

So how is it, with the same access to news about people like Nate Silver and other excellent data sources, that the Romney campaign totally did not see his defeat coming? Why didn’t they realize it was they who should be praying for a miraculous win against all odds? Why did they believe the skewed data from their internal reporting, which suggested lower African American turnout in Ohio than actually occurred? Were they like the film industry, interpreting the data according to their own delusions? That was my first thought, and with $400 million on the line – about four times what the film industry is usually charged with getting a good return on – I do think the need to believe certain things can sway people from reading data objectively.

But I also wonder if Romney’s pollsters had access to information Nate Silver could only guess at: namely, the extent of their voter suppression efforts. Did Romney’s team know just how hard various Republicans had worked on a de facto repeal of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution they so dearly claim to love? They’ve expressed a belief that there would be a lower turnout of African Americans this time – in 2008, 11% turned out to vote. In 2012, it was 15% despite all the efforts of the Republican party.

Did they simply underestimate the sheer determination and “fuck no, we won’t go” of African-American voters? I believe this was a big component in Romney’s defeat, and that all the people who stood out in the sun or freezing cold for 6 hours and another 2 hours indoors to vote, possibly losing entire days of work and the money that went with them, are Big Damn American Heroes. This refusal to leave was surely as important as any Civil Rights march from the 60s.

Barack Obama, in his acceptance speech, mentioned the long lines and voter suppression and said “We’ve got to do something about that.” This is a line that does not appear in any transcripts of the speech I’ve found, which suggests those early transcripts were provided by his campaign, based on his planned speech, and that particular remark was off-script and from the heart. In any case, it was a thrilling remark: the idea that some people should be prevented from voting because they don’t vote for the “right” people is as un-American as it gets. No patriot supports this idea. It’s bad enough when politics gets treated like sports, but this isn’t even sporting – it’s analogous to saying “The reason their team keeps beating ours is that they have better players. Let’s break the legs of those players so we can win!”

Voter suppression is the Tonya Harding approach to politics. That is unacceptable.

I believe, however, that the Obama team knew the suppression that was going on, too. (In hindsight, it also appears Nate Silver factored it into his predictions very accurately.) I suspect the Democrats knew, based on data crunching like Silver’s, that they could win despite it – and that was their plan: let the Republicans play a spectacularly dirty game, and still lose, and in so doing provide loads of evidence to use against them later. And it worked: the Republicans did every single thing they possibly could to win, and they still lost.

  • They threw hundreds of millions of dollars at it.
  • They’ve shifted districts around in lots of counties and states to make Democratic victory virtually impossible there.
  • They made voting as difficult as they could for African American regions in swing states.
  • Business owners (either on their own initiative or possibly encouraged by the party) threatened to lay off employees or close businesses if Obama won. Fortunately, David Siegel pulled a Romney (flip-flopped) on his promise and instead gave raises to his employees [ETA: one commenter claims to be an employee of his, and says no raises occurred]. My heart goes out to those people whose employers followed through on these promises – but I hope they blame their extortionist employers and not Obama or the voters. People who actually know how business works do not fire employees because of election results. That’s just stupid.

And they still lost. Think about it.

Looking at the data, it’s very easy to comprehend. Republicans are way out of touch with an electorate that voted out all “the rape guys“, voted in (or voted to keep) a lot of women, voted for gay marriage and for legalizing pot, and rejected the Republican’s racist take on immigration reform. The voters showed clearly that their values are far enough left of where the Republicans think they are that the Republican party is no longer relevant to the majority of us. It’s all right there in the data… but I guess it suits the Republican narrative better to just make up stuff:

But last night Karl Rove threw out a different theory: It was actually the Obama campaign itself that won the election by suppressing the fragile white-person vote. How did he do it? By showing them negative ads. He “succeeded in suppressing the vote” Rove said on Fox News, by running ads “”that turned off” Romney voters and kept them from voting.

Never before has the power of advertising been so wildly overestimated. Is Karl Rove suggesting that white people are so stupid they can be brainwashed by ads? Anyone who’s observed partisans watching campaign ads against their candidate knows they don’t suddenly submit to what’s being said: they rant and call it lies and point out perceived hypocrisy. If ads could brainwash people as well as Rove thinks, then AskJeeves would be #1 instead of Google. This doesn’t even get close to plausible, Karl.

But the film industry also has all the data it needs to realize that audiences aren’t a bunch of bigoted, easily threatened white guys anymore, and they still refuse to get it. Maybe they can blame Hurricane Sandy for their downfall too.

Like the film industry, the Republican party must evolve or get replaced with something more suited to our times. We need two strong parties – nations benefit from having both conservative and progressive elements to balance and check each other. But “conservative” does not mean “regressive.” Conservative means not moving forward before you’ve analyzed the data to make the best choices. The Republicans are so far away from any real definition of conservativism that they can be of no further use to the United States – unless they evolve.


  1. facebook_patrick.mcgraw.7 says

    I think that the Republicans have, in fact, figured out that they do not have the country’s support and have decided to go whole-hog on voter suppression.

    There are currently lawsuits in progress to overturn the Voting Rights Act, on the ground that “it is no longer needed,” and Roberts seems to be taking these claims seriously. After an election that has seen more voter suppression efforts than… well, than any election since the Voting Rights Act, as far as I can tell.

    Rove’s seemingly nonsensical description of “voter suppression” as “saying mean things about the other guy” is probably part of the same plan. By robbing the term of any real meaning, efforts to expose Republican efforts at actual voter suppression can be dismissed as just politics as usual, “both sides do it” hoopla.

    But the thing is, this year’s attempts at voter suppression did not work, and I don’t believe they will work in the future. Too many people are well aware of their rights, and modern technology and social media mean that even small-scale attempts at voter suppression can be documented and disseminated as they occur.

  2. says

    facebook_patrick.mcgraw.7, and the accuracy of poll aggregation is going to help us detect voter fraud, such as “flipping” votes at the machine level. If the final tallies are suddenly off from Nate Silver and RealClearPolitics and other poll aggregators, it’s not going to prove their math is wrong – it would prove their data is wrong, and with the amount of stuff these guys consider and weigh – again, with proven, repeated accuracy – that will suggest some hidden data that was never predictable at any point. Silver did account for suppression, but he can’t begin to account for outright changing of votes because that’s an entirely unpredictable phenomenon he wouldn’t have data on. It’s hard to imagine any other kind of information he and the others would not have, or would weigh wrong in the same direction somehow.

    But I do think this is the last straw for Republicans, so the Obama administration had better look into this as well.

    SunlessNick, thanks, I didn’t see that earlier (the page kept scrolling up on me for some reason). I’ve ETA’d the article to mention it.

    LOL @ Xkcd. It’s just kind of mind-boggling how anyone could think a numerical concept – the vote – could work anyway but with math.

  3. sbg says

    I’m not sure they believe in evolution.

    I laughed mightily at Karl Rove’s “Obama’s negative ad campaign suppressed the poor, sad white folks” BS. Riiiight, that’s how suppression really works effectively. Ads. As far as I could tell, what with being hit with negative ad after negative ad during the last week, Obama’s weren’t any more or less negative than his competitor’s. That’s full of as much illogic as Donald Trump’s stupid Twitter rants and continual “prove you went to school here, prove you were born here” claptrap. Great horny toads, I want that guy to shut it.

  4. Red says

    If Lincoln were alive, he’d probably be a Democrat or even an Independent. This is NOT his Republican Party. Not anymore. He’d be PISSED at things like voter suppression and demand these fools clean up their act.

  5. Amy McCabe says

    Given the election results one of two things could be said:

    • We failed to win the elecion since we couldn’t reach women and minorities, we need to find ways to reach and appeal to them better.

    •We failed to win the election since we couldn’t reach women and minorities, we need to prevent these people from voting in the future.

    Guess what I’ve heard most.

  6. Amy McCabe says

    I’ve unlocked a relevant lj post I made (here:

    My friend, one of those now vanishing rare moderate Republicans (who’s for gay rights and who’s job involves lobbying the GOP to pursue environmental issues among other things) posted a link on how the GOP needs to change.

    In the following discussion two people agreed, two disagreed but the conversation was pretty civil and measure until the fifth person posted, whom I’m responding to.

  7. says

    sbg, his ads were soooo typical for political ads*. If that can suppress voters, then how have we EVER had any turnout? 😀

    *The ad Rove has in mind could be the one where a paper mill worker describes being ordered to build a stage, and they don’t know what for – turns out it’s so their bosses can announce the mill is closing and they can all go fuck themselves. It was Bain Capital that bought it and closed it. So, if that’s what Rove had in mind, maybe Romney shouldn’t have provided such awesome ammunition by being such a heartless (sadistic?) shit.

    Amy McCabe, the more we hear it, the more people will understand why we’ve been talking about this stuff all this time. Most people don’t realize there are still people who think all the problems of the world are those effing women and minorities acting like human beings instead of knowing their place as livestock. Well, now they can see for themselves just how many bugs come scurrying out from under that particular rock.

    Your LJ entry… that guy should move to a Taliban controlled nation.The Taliban really knows how to suppress a vote. He should be very happy there. Also, they agree with him that women are not people with minds, but props that occasionally malfunction on set and have to be repaired or discarded.

    Imagine how pathetic you would need to be to embrace these ideas. You have to be among the most insecure, low self-esteem men on earth to NEED to believe this stuff.

    Red, amen! The man signed an amendment making voter suppression unconstitutional.

  8. Amy McCabe says

    Yeah. It wasn’t lost on me that while it was Sean and i how thought the GOP needs to change, he only responds or refers to Sean, which is why I didn’t actual post this to facebook. I clearly don’t count.

  9. says

    Amy McCabe, I always want to say “good riddance” when people do that kind of thing. Honestly, most of these states are where the most welfare dollars are being spent, so I doubt they could be self-sufficient without the Federal trough to belly up to. And I invite North Dakota to go fuck itself.

    I have to admit I kind of envy these people who have so little going on in their lives that they can bother with complete bullshit like this! I’m so busy with, like, earning a living and trying to leave the world in slightly better condition than I found it that I couldn’t find the time to start a bone-headed petition with implications far beyond my understanding of how nations work. Must be nice to have that kind of time!

  10. Cloudtigress says

    Amy McCabe,

    I’m curious as to WHO exactly is filing these petitions to secede, and if they have the legal standing to do so. In Indiana anyway (one of the 15 states mentioned as trying this), I cannot believe either the current Governor or the Governor-elect would seriously consider seceding just because the presidential election didn’t go their party’s way. Not to mention trying to get assorted state legislators on board with that idea, let alone trying to persuade the average citizen that it’s a good idea….. While I can believe people at that level TALKING about seceding, even a good talking about the possible outcomes should reveal that it’s more trouble than it’s worth to actual secede. Least I think so.

  11. Cloudtigress says

    Did a bit of digging with that link the MSN article provided, which lead to some articles on the Examiner site:

    Apparently there’s now citizens from 22 states asking to secede, with one (Texas) already over the 25,000 signatures needed to get an official response from the Feds. Also of note is that a few of these petitions are virtual clones of each other, almost like a form letter used when boycotting a business or something. On the other hand, at least this seems to be perpetuated by various disgruntled citizens rather than anyone actually in power in the relevant state governments. They, at least, realize that if secession isn’t illegal, then it’s more trouble than its worth to actually go for it.

  12. says

    That’s just so childish. Why is it progressives never pull this “take our toys and go home” behavior? Because we’re not 6 year olds trapped in adult bodies.

    Anyhow, I had no idea the White House website has petitions. I signed the one to repeal DOMA and also the one to deport everyone who signed one of these silly secession petitions. 😀

  13. says

    Also, LOL, I’m betting a lot of the signatures on the secession petitions are not from citizens of the petitioning state. I was tempted to sign a few of them as I went through the list.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *