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The 2012 Election’s Big Winner: Math

Independently of President Barack Obama's win last night, this year's campaign was one in which numbers trumped gut

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New Yorker reporter Ryan Lizza said this morning that after months of campaigning, the result of the 2012 election “was a huge victory yesterday for math.” Wired called 2012 “the nerdiest election in the history of the American Republic.” XKCD’s Randall Munroe published a comic this morning captioned: “To the surprise of pundits, numbers continue to be best system for determining which of two things is larger.”

Independently of President Barack Obama’s win last night, this year’s campaign was one in which numbers trumped gut. “2012 was about data and memes,” Wired wrote. “Your social media habits, browser history and mobile apps usage were goldmines for national politics.”

Part of this story is about the accuracy of pollsters and prognosticators. Wired:

Nate Silver of The New York Times completely reshaped coverage. Silver steadied the nerves of liberals and rattled the teeth of conservatives, all through a proprietary model of poll aggregation and weighting. Silver, who called the 2008 election with stunning accuracy, sought to do for politics what sabermetrics did for baseball: Factor out as many subjective judgments as possible, to determine who would win the race.

But poll aggregation came under fire because it was predicting an Obama win. As Esquire writes, “Stephen Colbert had the line that defines this election: ‘Math has a liberal bias.’” Those numbers, though, turned out to be accurate. Even those not ready to anoint Silver, the number-crunching poll analyst whose blog is published by The New York Times, as a genius, saw in this election a victory for numbers. Slate wrote that Silver’s accuracy “means that polling works, assuming that its methodology is sound, and that it’s done repeatedly.”

The other part of the story is about the new role of data in political campaigns. The Obama campaign put a particular emphasis on this strategy, as Time reports:

From the beginning, campaign manager Jim Messina had promised a totally different, metric-driven kind of campaign in which politics was the goal but political instincts might not be the means. “We are going to measure every single thing in this campaign,” he said after taking the job. He hired an analytics department five times as large as that of the 2008 operation, with an official “chief scientist” for the Chicago headquarters named Rayid Ghani, who in a previous life crunched huge data sets to, among other things, maximize the efficiency of supermarket sales promotions.

Whether or not that’s what won the president re-election, political professionals tend to take seriously strategies associated with winning campaigns. In elections to come, campaign managers will, likely as not, put even more emphasis on data than they have in the past. If math and data were running in 2012 for a starring role in politics, they won.

More from Smithsonian.com:

How a Facebook Ad Increased Real World Election Turnout

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About Sarah Laskow
Sarah Laskow

Sarah Laskow is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor of Smart News. Her work has appeared in print and online for Grist, GOODSalon, The American Prospect, Newsweek, New York among other publications.

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