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Karl Rove published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which he claimed that Republicans lost the 2012 Presidential election, in part, because Democrats maintain a significant data advantage over Republicans. While this may be true, Rove’s contention is that with its own “army of computer engineers, mathematicians and social scientists” Republicans will be able to win elections they would have lost otherwise. As a practicing mathematician, I can tell you that Rove has no idea what he is talking about.
Rove’s contention is the following: By hiring an “army” of mathematicians and data analysts as Obama did in 2012, the RNC or the 2016 Republican Presidential nominee can sift through voter files in order to rank and track likely voters. This is what marketers attempt to do when they sell soap. Unfortunately, politicians are not soap and no ad in Field and Stream of Mitt Romney and his lovely wife wrapped in white bath towels hopping out of the shower holding bars of Dove will make voters more likely to vote. The reason is simple. Voters HATE politicians. We hate them. We do not trust them. When people knock on our door or call us on the phone asking for our vote, we lie just to get rid of you. It is not accidental that 5 out of 6 Americans think Congress is doing a lousy job. So what would a mathematician tell Karl Rove if he asked for my advice about how to improve upon his 1.3% success rate in the 2012 elections? I would tell Karl to do some principal component analysis.
What is that? In short, it is a statistical tool to identify the most significant drivers of a physical process, in this case an election result. In other words, all other things being equal what is most important to voters to ensure that enough of them get out the door to vote for a candidate. I will save Karl the time and expense of hiring an “army” of mathematicians and answer the question for him. When voters are dissatisfied, if the opposition presents a stark contrast with the status quo and is believable, they win. That is how Obama won in 2008 and why Romney lost in 2012. When there is more than one election on the ballot, results are often driven by the result at the top of the ticket. It is just that simple. You do not have to be a mathematician to appreciate this fact. Rove does and is using his op-ed to deflect criticism.
A few facts. Obama lost 5% of his 2008 vote in 2012 yet still managed to win. This was, in part, because many voters were uncertain that the philosophical father of Obamacare, someone who spent the latter part of his campaign praising government run health insurance, would provide a significant enough contrast to Obama.
By campaigning as the 41st vote against the Obama agenda, Scott Brown increased turnout in Republican leaning counties by 77% to become the first Republican to represent Massachusetts in the United States Senate since Harry Truman was President. Two years later after embracing parts of the Obama agenda, Brown lost handedly to a more authentic liberal.
Karl Rove contends that "personal messaging” will help Republicans sway potential voters. Rove believes that was a source of Obama’s success. How many “independents” did “Republican” Linda McMahon’s door hangers sway when they asked voters to elect her to overturn the President’s health care law while simultaneously asking voters to re-elect the President? Apparently not many as McMahan lost in 2012 by the same 12 point margin that she lost by in 2010. Voters recognized a pander and we're not swayed.
For all his years in politics, it is apparent that Karl Rove has never spent election day in an urban inner city neighborhood. Obama won re-election because he out-hustled Romney in urban neighborhoods where the vote favors Democrats. This was old-fashioned Democrat machine politics pure and simple. Republicans would do well to copy the Democrat model for election day grassroots organizing and focus efforts there. They should have local poll watchers maintain their own voter lists and deploy an “army” of volunteer election lawyers and poll watchers as the Democrats do.
Rove concludes “erasing the GOP's data deficit is no substitute for effective messages and strong candidates.” I agree. While Rove wants to focus his efforts on helping Republicans “deliver those messages better,” I believe that our efforts would be better spent on delivering a more effective believable message that contrasts with the Democrats. In a country where conservatives outnumber liberals in 47 out of 50 states, you would think politicians would pander to conservatives to try and win elections. Clearly, there is a disconnect. You do not need to be a mathematician to appreciate that a believable message is the meat that gets your supporters to the polls. Everything else is gravy.