Imagine for a moment that you could study the ebb and flow of public discussion about American politics as if it were a computer graphic. What would this database of "aggregated thought" tell you about the presidential campaign debates?
It happens that a former Republican campaign strategist named Charles M. McLean has created just such a database. His consulting company, Denver Research Group Inc., monitors more than 7,000 sources on a constant, real-time basis -- giving him a window on what he estimates is about 80 percent of all original political content around the world. Using a combination of computer algorithms and human analysis, he sifts this mass of information to discern the "tonalities" that shape global events. This approach has identified key political trends one to two weeks before those changes appear in traditional poll numbers, he says.
And what does McLean's giant Wurlitzer of information tell him about the debates? Like the conventional pollsters, he rated last Thursday night as a giant victory for John Kerry. The difference is that McLean's methodology allowed him to see this shift coming. His "tonality" measure for Kerry began to move up sharply just after Kerry gave a speech Sept. 20, outlining a four-point plan on Iraq. When Kerry performed well Thursday night, he was pushing on an open door.
What's driving this election, argues McLean, is something he calls the "unease factor." He estimates that more than 20 percent of the electorate is worried about America's security in the world -- and is looking for reassurance. It's a large group -- much bigger than the usual measure of undecided swing voters because it includes a lot of Bush supporters who had been comforted by the Republican candidate's certitude about Iraq and the war on terrorism.
Kerry couldn't reassure these uneasy voters until he had an alternative explanation of what the United States should do in Iraq. His "tonality," by McLean's measure, had collapsed in early August after the ad campaign by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth challenged his trump card of Vietnam service. It didn't recover until his Iraq speech, which reassured voters that Kerry had an alternative "plan" for the war, as he kept repeating Thursday night. The poll numbers didn't show the swing before the debate, but McLean's indicators did.
"The uneasy voters want to hear how it's all going to be okay," McLean explains. "They've been waiting for something to grab hold of with Kerry. Bush's greatest strength was his sense of assurance, comfort, confidence -- but his performance Thursday took all three away. All Kerry had to do was stand there with a catcher's mitt."
I've been exchanging e-mails with McLean for the past year, pestering him to let me write about his methodology. Since he's selling the system to various Fortune 500 corporations, he's wary about sharing too many details. And I should note, as a caveat, that he's shared information this year with the Kerry campaign.
McLean says he's applying to politics something he learned doing commercial research: By the time a new product shows up in sales data, it's too late for another company to compete effectively. An aggressive competitor must analyze the technical and market environment and then develop products for that space. It's the same in politics, McLean says: By the time you see a candidate's weakness in poll numbers, it may be too late to fix it.
McLean has applied his intriguing approach to the Middle East, helping build an organization called Access/Middle East, which automatically monitors and translates more than 400 sources covering Israel and the Arab world. This database also includes information from more than 50 think tanks.
So what does McLean's survey of "aggregated thought" in the Islamic world tell him about the possibility of terrorist attacks? The likelihood of an attack on U.S. soil now stands at 46 percent, the highest level since Sept. 11, 2001. But the risk is even higher, at 54 percent, in the six months after the November presidential election. And for better or worse, McLean sees a high likelihood (68 percent) that radical Islamists will make a political push in Iraq -- perhaps focusing on winning next January's elections.
McLean describes his system as "Google with judgment." To me, it sounds almost like an electronic "marketplace of ideas" that allows you to track the direction and momentum of what people are thinking, 24 hours a day. If the system works as well as he says, it could eventually change the way people analyze politics, and a lot of other things as well.