David Brooks: Death by polling data

By David Brooks

New York Times

Over the past decade or so, political campaigns have become more scientific. Campaign consultants use sophisticated data to micro-target specific demographic slices. Consultants select their ad buys more precisely because they know which political niche is watching which TV show. Campaigns trial test messages that push psychological buttons.

Discussion around politics has also become more data driven. Opinion writers look at demographic trends and argue over whether there is an emerging Democratic majority. Pundits like me study the polling cross tabs, trying to figure out which way Asian-Americans are trending here and high-school-educated white women are trending there.

Unfortunately, the whole thing has been a fiasco. As politics has gotten more scientific, the campaigns have gotten worse, especially for the candidates who over-rely on these techniques.

That's because the data-driven style of politics is built on a questionable philosophy and a set of dubious assumptions. Data-driven politics is built on a philosophy you might call Impersonalism. This is the belief that what matters in politics is the reaction of populations and not the idiosyncratic judgment, moral character or creativity of individuals.

Data-driven politics assumes that demography is destiny, that the electorate is not best seen as a group of freethinking citizens but as a collection of demographic slices. This method assumes that mobilization is more important than persuasion; that it is more important to target your likely supporters than to try to reframe debates or persuade the whole country.

This method puts the spotlight on the reactions of voting blocs and takes the spotlight off the individual qualities of candidates. It puts the spotlight on messaging and takes the spotlight off product: actual policies. It puts the spotlight on slight differences across the socio-economic spectrum and takes the spotlight off the power of events to reframe the whole mood and landscape. This analytic method encourages candidates across the country to embrace the same tested, cookie-cutter messages.

Candidates who have overrelied on these techniques have been hurt by them.

One victim was Mitt Romney, who ran for president not as himself, but as a thin slice of himself. Another victim was President Barack Obama. His 2012 campaign was legendary from an analytic point of view, and, of course, it was victorious. But it lacked a policy agenda and produced no mandate. Without a compelling agenda, the administration has projected an image of reactive drift and lost public confidence.

This year, the most notorious victim of demographic politics is Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado. He's tried to win the female votes as if all women cared about were "women's" issues. The Denver Post's editorial board wrote that he's run an "obnoxious one-issue campaign," which is in a dead heat.

The other victims include the Democratic senators in red states. Winning in a state that the other party dominates is a personal enterprise. It requires an ineffable individual connection with voters. It requires an idiosyncratic approach to issues. By eclipsing individual quirks with generic messages, the data-driven style deprives outnumbered candidates of precisely what they need to survive. Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat, could have made a real run at Sen. Mitch McConnell in Kentucky if she'd been a little more creative.

Of course, data sets are important. Obviously demography matters a lot. But, at heart, politics is a personal enterprise. Voters are looking for quality of leadership, character, vision and solidarity that defies quantification. Candidates like Daniel Patrick Moynihan or Jerry Brown can arouse great loyalty in ways that are impossible to predict.

In the midst of this scuffling economy, voters are thinking as Americans and not as members of a niche. They're asking: What can be done to kick-start America? They're not asking: How can I guarantee affordable contraception? People who are building campaigns on microtargeting are simply operating on the wrong level of consciousness.

The more you look at political history, the more you see that political imagination is the rarest and most valuable of qualities. Voters don't always know what they want, but they look to leaders to jump ahead of the current moment and provide visions they haven't thought of.

Some politicians, like FDR or Ronald Reagan, can reframe debates and envision coalitions that don't exist. Their visions emerge out of unique life experiences, which are unusual but have broad appeal. They build trust not through a few targeted messages but by fully embodying a moment and a people. They often don't pander to existing identities but arouse different identities.

Today we have a lot of technical innovation, but not a lot of political creativity. The ecosystem no longer produces as much entrepreneurship — mutations that fuel evolution.

Data-driven candidates sacrifice their own souls. Instead of being inner-directed leaders driven by their own beliefs, they become outer-directed pleasers driven by incomplete numbers.