To understand the emotive part of voters’ decisions, you need numbers

November 4, 2013

At the end of The Washington Post’s review of the book “Double Down” by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, Peter Hamby fires a shot across the bow of the “Nate Silver wing of the Internet,” one that is worth quoting at length:

“The Nate Silver wing of the Internet will almost surely gripe that the book is an example of political journalism’s worst instincts — it’s too dependent on the hunches and agendas of sources rather than hard measures of why Obama won. The authors ascribe colossal import to the tactical decisions and shouting matches inside campaign war rooms, but their dishy portraits often skimp on the larger forces that drove the race, from an improving economy and demographic shifts to Romney’s charisma deficit and the Obama campaign’s superior voter-contact machinery…  Campaigns, though, aren’t just about number-crunching and statistical analysis. Candidates matter. Voters tell pollsters that they make their choices based on issues such as education, health care, taxes and the economy — and they do. But they also care about temperament, empathy, strength, reason, trust and the human side of these strange and wily people who think they’re up to the task of running the country. And as Halperin and Heilemann understand, so do readers.”

It doesn’t take Lloyd Bentsen’s insight to know that I’m no Nate Silver.  Still, in trying to argue for the importance of a narrative, inside-baseball account of the 2012 election, this review makes an instructive mistake: it conflates the ways in which voters make decisions with the tools that analysts use to understand those decisions.  For Hamby, the fact that voters care about “the human side of these strange and wily people” somehow indicates the limits of number-crunching, as if those more emotive influences on voting decision-making are beyond the reach of statistics.  I’d argue precisely the opposite: it’s on those parts of voter decision-making that are more emotive and expressive that experiments and number-crunching are especially important.  After all, voters are unlikely to tell an interviewer that they voted for the more attractive candidate, or the candidate whose advertisements had more evocative music or images.  More than 125 million Americans voted in 2012.  Whatever motives you think shaped their decisions, you are going to need some number-crunching to evaluate their relative importance.

Now, is there value in an insiders’ account of the campaign?  Of course.  But that value is likely to come primarily from what it tells us about the insiders, their parties (in both senses of the word), their interactions, beliefs, personalities, strategies, and perceptions of voters — and not from its insights about voter decision-making.  Voter decision-making is surely not the only yardstick of importance.  In this case, it seems more than a little odd to justify the work of journalists in bringing new facts to light by arguing that voters care about these facts — one of the central contributions of “Double Down” is precisely to unearth facts that weren’t widely known when Barack Obama and Mitt Romney appeared on a ballot for the last time.  There are plenty of reasons that we should care about candidates for president and the people who surround them.  We should care a lot.  But elections themselves are giant math problems, with each side trying to amass a larger number of votes.  And as with other math problems, when it comes to understanding why voters make the decisions they do, there is no substitute for numbers.

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Erik Voeten | November 4, 2013