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The science vs art of politics

  • Published at 12:03 am September 26th, 2016
  • Last updated at 03:19 pm September 26th, 2016
The science vs art of politics

A lot of people around the world are watching the ongoing US election campaign very closely. The type of feelings campaign watchers are experiencing is closely tied with their respective race, religion, ideology, even profession, among other categories. Among all the professionals who are monitoring the election campaign closely, no profession is more nail-bitingly anxious than the profession whose job is to manage and analyse election campaigns: Political consultants.

Political consultancy in USA is now a $3 billion-a-year industry in a regular year and nearly double that in a presidential election year. Political consultancy is huge in Europe and in other countries of the world also, although not to the extent of the US. In many of those countries, US political consultants are often highly prized imports, bought with great riches to impart their arcane political wizardry to the natives.

There has been a great transformation in election campaigns and general politics in the last two decades. In large part due to the IT revolution but also due to the conjunction of business and management with politics, a large and new professional group has risen composed of political, marketing, management, psychological, legal, data analysis, and network development experts, and many other professions. This group of professionals has been relentlessly applying modern business management techniques into the traditional, thousands-of-years-old art of politics to make a science out of it.

Some of these techniques, although applied more methodically now, have been used in politics for a long time. For example, using focus groups to know what issues or messages connect with voters best -- professionally crafted and tested brand marketing and attack advertising.

A big change in scale has been at the ground level. Canvassing for candidates was traditionally a rollicking campaign activity participated in by thousands of political enthusiasts and mercenary louts. Now the “ground game” involves hundreds of thousands of paid workers and volunteers targeting all vital regions of the country with organisation and precision that will shame many advanced national militaries.        

But the biggest change undoubtedly is IT-driven data analytics. Developing a database of voters and using statistical methods have been part of campaigns for some decades now, but only in the 21st century have data analytics become the core of election strategies. The Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012 are now regarded both as the harbingers and finest examples of IT-powered elections.

In 2008, the Obama campaign developed a database on every voter in the US, based on survey data, voter registration records, consumer data, public records, etc. They said that the database had as many as one thousand data points for the profile of every voter. All these data points were used in statistical models to predict whether any particular voter will vote and for whom he or she will vote. The development of this database was supported by an enormous operation in every battleground state. Every week, campaign call centres completed five to 10 thousand interviews in each state to build up voter profiles.

The Obama campaign of 2012 built on their database to develop a more proactive and technically sophisticated program. They used controlled trials to find what kind of voters were more persuadable in changing their minds about political preferences and with what type of messages. The new buzzword was micro-targeting -- developing small databases of particular voter groups and directing targeted advertisement and canvasing towards them.

Both during 2008 and 2012, the Republican campaign tried to catch up with the Democratic campaign in organisation and technical expertise, but fell short. As for the 2016 campaign, both Democrats and Republicans geared up for an epic battle of science and organisation, fighting tooth and nail for every voter so as to concede the opposition not an inch of omission.

Then Donald Trump happened.

There is also no doubt that, by sheer luck or by flash of genius, Trump has successfully tapped into popular anxieties about the state of the world and politics in ways that professional political consultant had not even dreamed of before the present election cycle

Ever since Trump announced his presidential bid in the gaudy atrium of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, he has been breaking political conventions and disproving political wisdom with wanton disregard. He began by promising to build a wall to keep Mexican “rapists” and “criminals” out of America, thereby irrevocably alienating the nation’s largest minority. He made fun of women professionals in the crudest ways, thereby making him tainted among the gender that votes overwhelmingly more than men. He has lied, flip-flopped unashamedly and serially. His nomination convention was a farcical parade of gaffes, mistakes, and cartoonish fear-mongering. He has spent very little money in advertising and canvasing. Trump has already gotten rid of two campaign managers and his third manager spends more time in television studios than in the campaign office.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has tried to follow the Obama model as closely as possible. She has raised tons of money from big donors, opened hundreds of offices, and recruited thousands of campaign workers. She has already spent more than $100m in attack ads. Her campaign has also built a formidable data analytics and micro-targeting operation. Her campaign manager is so busy that he is almost never seen or heard in media. She has done everything required by the playbook. Yet, with barely six weeks remaining before D-day, Trump and Hillary are now almost even in the election horse race.

Therein lies the source of all anxiety for the political consultant class. They are finding that the utility of the existence of their entire class is in question.

James Carville, Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign manager and a legend among consultants, said this about the state of affairs in the New Yorker magazine: “The Trump campaign is not a bad campaign. It’s not a messed-up campaign. It’s not a dysfunctional campaign. There is no campaign. Everybody that’s done this for a living and got paid to do it is, like, ‘Oh, my gosh, suppose this works. We’re all rendered useless.’ He will have destroyed an entire profession.”

What happened?

There is no doubt that part of the answer lies with Hillary herself. She has shown herself as a very uninspiring candidate with a crippling baggage of past and current scandals borne out of an ingrained culture of secrecy and deceit. Trump and Hillary both have to be two of most negatively perceived candidates in the modern era. There is also no doubt that, by sheer luck or by flash of genius, Trump has successfully tapped into popular anxieties about the state of the world and politics in ways that professional political consultants had not even dreamed of before the present election cycle. It turns out that management science does not always trump old-fashioned political intuitions and the art of persuasion.

Even preparation for the most anticipated debate on Monday illustrates the two radically different approaches. Hillary has been cramming for the debate with help of a legion of experts to prepare for every kind of contingency in the debate. Donald Trump is taking minimal preparations, relying instead on his remarkable prowess as a billionaire salesman par excellence to sell his thin politics and policy to the people.

We do not know which approach will eventually triumph in November. Both the unexpected outcome of the Brexit election and the success of Trump’s very unscientific and threadbare campaign so far have already reminded us once again that, despite all the sound and fury, the science of man, the political animal, remains elusive.

Shafiqur Rahman is a political scientist.

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