Math and elections - the politician as analytics-driven marketerScene 1: A market in Athens, 500 BC, gentle murmur (in Greek, naturally).

Cleisthenes gathers his robes around him and asks for calm. And in the nervous silence that ensues, tells the crowd that the era of autocrats and aristocrats is over. That every citizen has the right to determine who will run the state. (And thus begins the first attempt to convince us that we matter.)

Login to readmore

Scene 2: A room in Washington DC, August 2012.

A pensive President and his team wait to see what Narwhal has to say. Narwhal will decide which direction the re-election campaign should take.

Narwhal, is a data-platform. You heard that right. Narwhal is the data-platform employed by the Barack Obama campaign in 2012.

When I last heard, the Narwhal was a whale. Something that gets a lot of Facebook likes and coos, but is insignificant otherwise. Which, is not the case any more. This Narwhal we talk about determined the path that the Obama campaign took.

So what has changed between the birth of direct democracy and representative democracy today? The voter remains as powerless and impotent; so nothing much there. Promises remain promises; so nothing much there.

But campaign decision-making by politicians? Gut-driven has given way to data-driven.

Developing an affection for the math of elections.

I spent my early years in Calcutta. And what would be surprising is notdeveloping an affinity for elections and electioneering. As young students, we were fascinated by the pure whites of the then unassailable Jyoti Basu and the pure red of socialism.

As young students, we marched for causes domestic and international, relevant and irrelevant. We marched for Nelson Mandela, for Bishop Desmond Tutu, we marched for the Third World, we marched for a holiday next Monday, and of course, we marched against imperialism, capitalism, and a few other -isms that we had vaguely heard existed. Proletariat, plebeian, people, we spared no p.

We marched because we believed elections are decided by defining causes, by the zeitgeist of the political moment, by charismatic personalities, strategic manoeuvres and of course, by the power of rhetoric. We believed, that election hinged on the motivations of millions of individual human beings and their views. And then, unfortunately, I grew up and started shaving.

Cleisthenes to Trump, is this change substantial?

Let’s face it, Cleisthenes to Trump, direct to representative, nothing much has changed. The people continue to believe they hold the cards; politicians have always been smarter.

If there ever has been a master of segmentation, it’s not the marketer, but the politician. This was true of Cleisthenes, when he sold the ancient Greeks the foundations of direct democracy. This was true of the Calcutta of my youth, where politicians promised a paradise of equals (I realised, later, that paradise cannot have equals). And this, is true of Trump when he talks about walls and masonry.

Politicians have always had an instinct for what you want to hear. And now, that instinct is backed by two powerful protagonists – data and math.

Now every politician can segment sharper, target better and personalize communication more effectively. To reach in (not out) to each of us with an appeal that they believe we are waiting to hear.

With their gut, math and data by their side, they are now unstoppable. Except of course, by the opposition.

 Scene 3:Narwhal and Orca go head to head.

Narwhal’s job was to serve as the backbone for Obama’s campaign operations – integrate data for functions such as customized emails for fund-raising, identification of likely-voter clusters and using them via social media as influencers. In essence, building as personalized a campaign as possible.

Orca, Mitt Romney’s app  (so optimistically named because it is the only known predator of the Narwhal), had a different task. It was a mobile application that would be used by 37,000 volunteers in the swing states to track known Romney supporters on polling day. Through the day, it would keep pushing calls to voters if they didn’t turn up.

Orca crashed. On election day. And 37,000 volunteers were left literally fiddling their thumbs on election day. Narwhal won (and of course, Obama) and it marked the success of one of the first and largest technology-backed, voter-as-customer campaigns. Now, how much of a role did technology play in the win? How much of a role did data and mathematics play?

The might of math in politics.

“It’s not a science yet. It’s an art,” says Congressman Jerry McNerney. But no one will deny that the potential for mathematics and data in politics is growing. Look, when analytics came into sports, we should have realised that the next stop is the next most-watch event on TV, politics.

Michael Lewis’s ‘Moneyball’ chronicled Oakland Athletics’s Billy Bean and the use of sabermetrics in the first known use of data and statistics to evaluate baseball players. Today you see guys with clipboards (and yes, iPads) in every dugout (of every game). Fans love data too, and websites and apps like fivethirtyeight.comprovide baseball fans with a whole lot more than just baseball coverage. [To prove my earlier point about politics following sport, fivethirtyeight.com also predicted the eventual outcome in 49 out of 50 states in the 2008 US elections.]

Where it used to be the gut and the quantity and quality of grey hair in the team, the average politician today is armed with behavioral psychology, social media strategies and randomized experiments with voters as guinea pigs. Politicians are surrounded by men with clipboards who assure them that they can predict who will vote for them even before the voters themselves know.

Today’s support team is full of analysts, who use math and statistics to predict the behavior of different segments of the populace. And thanks to the information that we keep putting out about ourselves, data scientists can continuously gather data to keep themselves in tune with every tiny swing in the public mood – this helps them decide everything from candidate selection, to ideological stances, to campaign ideas, to personalized targeting to predicting voter turnout.

Now Lincoln believed that a substantial percentage of the north would back him on the abolition of slavery. But that was just his gut, that was just other grey-haired eminences convincing him that he was on a right call, that was just his moral instinct. But look at what today’s politician has at his fingertips.

We know that a substantial 31% of people going into this US election are non-whites, of other racial or ethnic minorities. Which should be very worrying for a politician who is recommending say, for example, a wall to keep out some specific minorities. But what the politician also knows is that millions more older, white, working-class people voted in 2012 than members of the afore-mentioned 31%.

With these numbers before him, the analytical politician knows that a targeted campaign can get him more voters out on voting day. Enough to outweigh the 31%. An indication might be the fact that in the NY primaries, Trump won the votes of 65% of whites with no degree and more importantly, the votes of 55% of white-collar graduates.

Now once they have their segmentation in place, they turn their attention to what the segment wants to hear. Which explains, of course, the new wall. (Though I really wish someone with a clipboard had told him that Scotland voted ‘in’.)

The politician as analytics-driven marketer.

I prefer this to saying ‘the voter as consumer’. For the simple reason that the voter has always been a consumer and the politician has always been a consummate marketer. But today the politician has the might of math behind him.

Today every political party, like any toothpaste, looks carefully at branding, market research, voter segmentation, use of imagery, personalization tactics, targeted and personalized (and varying) communication and the emotional quotient in each appeal.

Isn’t the voter-consumer and politician-marketer analogy getting stronger? The analogy has always existed. Only that now what we are looking at is data science and analytics-led consumer marketing.

What we are seeing (and what politicians saw way before us), is a coming together of cognitive and behavioural patterns that have always existed in the consumer and the citizen. The average Joe is an advanced economy spends most of his time thinking as a consumer. It is then but natural, that these thought processes would spill over into other compartments of our lives that require decision-making. (Please do remember that in these omni-channel days, purchase is a decision both personal and collective.)

Which is why political parties now opt for branding consultants. How many of us can deny the role played by Shepard Fairey in 2008? Fairey’s ‘Hope’ and later ‘Change’ and ‘Vote’ posters are the defining image of President Obama’s campaign. Fairey distributed 300,000 stickers and 500,000 posters. The New Yorker called it “the most efficacious American political illustration since Uncle Sam Wants You”. And President Obama, in a letter thanking Fairey acknowledged that “The political images involved in your work have encouraged Americans to believe they can change the status quo”.

The marketer also knows where to continuously look for the opinions generated by this changing behavioral psychology of the contemporary consumerist-voter. (C’mon, you do that too. Every time you check on what clusters of your friends have to say on FB on an issue.)

[The irony also is that a considerable majority of the population considers itself informed. Sadly, without wondering who is doing the ‘informing’.]

Engaging your consumer. Er, voter.

“The key is what you offer them, and how you make it stick.”
“Constantly review the analytics, build models and do a lot of testing and retesting to see what works best.”
This is not a brand marketer talking about a launch. This is Alex Black, who leads CSC’s Enterprise Intelligence Practice, talking about micro-targeting voters for the last Obama campaign.

President Obama was helped considerably by Big Data, that identified swing groups he could target with ads. Add to this the fact that Democratic voters skew to a younger demographic, and it shows you how the Obama campaign maintained a lopsided advantage in social media circles.

The Obama Big Data team identified converted advocates and used ‘affinity ratios’ for matchmaking – linking people with the same lifestyle and life-stage details to drive action. They were building on the age-old ‘people like us’ theory of social behavior, but with the aid of technology.

How different is this from anything that a marketer does on a daily basis?

 Scene 4: Ronald McDonald is in the Oval Office

All of this brings us to a big question. Is Ketchup running the country?

What the marketer offers a customer, is choice. So s/he is capable of taking an informed, individual decision. What elections offer a citizen is a responsibility. A responsibility that in many ways, is collective. So in the consumerization of the voter, is citizenship being eroded by selfish, individualistic choices?

Is it advisable for ‘consumer behavior’ as we know it, to decide on who’s running the government? Do we need ‘citizen behavior’, specifically?

The mention of citizen behavior, brings up the other extreme. In these ‘informed’ social media days, are we heading from evolved representative democracy to Cleisthenes’s times? To direct democracy? And this today is a reasonable question, with every citizen also being an active social media participant.

I personally believe that while direct democracy sounds idealistic, it is neither practical nor perfect. Maybe for a tiny city state, but not for complex democracies. All said, direct democracy killed Socrates in a city state. And with Brexit, all of us just saw what a referendum (the simplest form of direct democracy) can do to a contemporary democracy (well, a monarchical democracy). Let’s face it, while everyone can have an opinion, everyone’s opinion cannot run a democratic nation.

After voter as consumer, what next?

Where will this lead to, tomorrow? The possibilities are well, infinite. Take for example legislations. Today what we see, more often than not, is voting along party lines. With of course, whispers of lobbies, lobbying and pink, flying elephants.

But there is a whole lot of data available now about voting on legislations. And there are firms that now process the data to predict voting patterns of legislators. One of these firms can predict, with an accuracy of 95%, the outcome of bills in the US Congress and state legislatures.

Now when you place this alongside the immense information you have on each legislator, campaigners know how they have voted in the past and their stand on specific causes. This gives campaigners a clear idea of which legislator to target with their communication, what tack to take before the bills come to be discussed. So will be soon see politicians voting on each bill according to their conscience’s whip and not the party’s? Idealistic, but a possibility.

 Electoral math also poses a whole lot of uncomfortable questions that people will raise in the days to come. For them I have a little caveat, democracy has never been about meritocracy. I apologise, but it’s true.

Democracy has always been about numbers. The only difference between Cleisthenes’s time and ours, is that we have a lot more science backing us in playing those number better.

Scene 5: David Cameron is walking into the sunset on some Cornwall beach. And across the Atlantic….