Dozens of states, hundreds of Electoral College votes, thousands of primary delegates and millions of voters: the American presidential election is unquestionably a numbers game. But in 2016, the two major presidential campaigns have taken very different stances on the political power of mathematics – and it might mean the difference between Clinton and Trump taking the presidency.
Since Barack Obama’s victorious run for the White House in 2008, mathematical analysis has become the beating heart of Democratic presidential campaigns. By crunching the numbers, data analysts can match messages to receptive audiences, determine the most effective methods of advertising, campaigning, and fundraising and identify key battlegrounds. This kind of statistical analysis helps to ensure every resource – from cash to time to workforce – is working at maximum efficiency.
Obama’s 2008 campaign is widely considered to have been won on the back of data-driven targeting, a strategy considered “essential to progressive victories” in a report published by Catalist, the company that coordinated much of the data, and obtained by The Atlantic. Over 7 million new voter registrations were generated by Catalist, with over half turning up to vote. For his re-election campaign in 2012, Obama’s team honed their data collection strategy: many databases were compiled into one massive “mega file” which was essential not only in raising a record-breaking $1 billion, but also – more importantly – in the efficient, effective spending of those funds.
In many ways, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign has followed the trail blazed by Obama’s campaign. Not only has Clinton embraced the power of data – employing a team of over 60 mathematicians and analysts – but her Director of Analytics Elan Kriegel is, according to Politico Magazine, the second highest-paid staffer on her payroll. Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook singles him out as the guiding hand behind “almost every aspect of what we do.”
For such an important figure, Kriegel isn’t nearly as well-known as some of his colleagues. With degrees in Mathematics and Statistics, he spends much of his time analyzing numbers behind the scenes. In an interview with On Wisconson, he notes that while much of his team’s work is predictive, the data they collect can have a practical impact: “You can register people to vote. You can convince people to vote with you. And you can turn people out.”
While Clinton’s campaign has embraced “big data” with open arms, Trump’s has gone in a different direction. An AP interview revealed that Trump feels sophisticated data collection is “overrated,” attributing Obama’s 2008 and 2012 victories to his personality rather than analysis. Trump believes his path to the presidency lies along the same path, turning to traditional and social media to get his name out. It’s certainly been effective so far, having netted him billions of dollars worth of free press.
Whatever the result, this year’s presidential campaign will ensure intense debate of the effectiveness of mathematical analysis on politics. Is Trump’s big personality enough to spread his message and clinch the most powerful position in the world? Or will Clinton’s hordes of mathematicians and analysts swing the numbers in her favor?