6 mins to read

5 smartest, 5 stupidest US election moments

Big data, bigger Meatloaf.

Thu, 08 Nov 2012

SMART: Meatloaf serenades Mitt Romney. Sure it sounded like a baby seal being killed, but it eclipsed memories of Clint Eastwood's empty chair speech at the Republican convention.

STUPID: Kristen Neel, unwitting poster girls for a threatened Republican exodus to Australia and NZ, which briefly gained buzz on Twitter (sadly her account has been taken offline).

ABOVE: There have been few details of the software statistician Nate Silver uses (if you know, please share a link in Comments below), leaving him open to Tea Party accusations he is in fact a witch.

SMART: Nate Silver and the triumph of big data. US tech firms have been trumpeting “big data” for months. But it took boy wonder Nate Silver to demonstrate its effectiveness.

Silver used data modelling and mining  to track hundreds of national and local polls, weighting for factors such as a poll company’s past success, and how much money a candidate had raised.

His system spat out the correct results in every single Senate race, and 49 of 50 states in the Presidential race (the 50th if Florida, still to be decided; Silver picked Obama).

It was a coup for the New York Times, which bought Silver's FiveThirtyEight blog in 2010.

The Times used promoted tweets to boost FiveThirtyEight's (already healthy) traffic. On the day before the election, FiveThirtyEight accounted for 20% of the Times' traffic, helping it become the sixth most-trafficked site in the US. It helps that as well as being super maths nerd, Silver has the gift of the gab.

STUPID: The pundits. Nate Silver's detractors have pointed out that anyone who took a simple average of daily tracking polls in battleground states (as handily collated  by and others) could have successfully predicted the outcome of the election (if not quite with Silver's 100% hit rate).

But ... pundits on the right and left preferred to go with guts, "sensing" ground swells and generally compiling a list of wildly inaccurate predictions.

It patronises voters to think they didn't realise many pundits, like veteran Republican Karl Rove on Fox News, had an element of willful, rallying-the-troops optimism to their forecasts. Still a table summary of their predictions on The Atlantic Wire makes for brutal reading.

SMART: US voters, for going out of their way to exercise their right to democracy.  Americans are often slagged for low turnout, and this year it was 118 million people or about 50% of the voting age population. But imagine you had to vote on a work day – often with the restriction that you had to appear at the polling place closer to your home – and faced a queue of two and half hours or more. Frankly, I probably wouldn’t (some states do have increasingly liberal early voting laws).

Another factor, the Electoral College system means only the toss-up states matter. If you’re in a blue state like New York (which Obama won 63% to 36%) or a red state like Oklahoma (Romney 67%, Obama 33%), there’s not much incentive to queue.

STUPID: Those colours. Blue for left wing, red for right wing? How did that happen? Actually, there is a historic explanation. The Democrats began life as the conservative, pro-slavery party of the South, while Republicans were the liberal, progressive party of the North East. Over time, from the Depression of the thirties to the social upheaval of the 60s, the parties swapped sides. There are style traces of the old status quo here and there, like Al Gore, heir to the tobacco plantation fortune of former Tennessee Democrat Senator Al Gore Sr (today both of Tennessee’s senators are Republican, and Romney carried the state with 60% to Obama’s 39%.

SMART: Micro-donations. Facebook is all well and trendy for networking, and posting supportive messages and rah-rah photos, but Obama campaign’s real trick was using social media for blunt fundraising.

Obama became the only Democratic presidential nominee to foreswear public funding for two Presidential elections in a row – meaning he had to fund his entire campaign himself, but could raise as much as he liked (Romney also passed on public funding, making it the only campaign in modern times were both candidates had gone it alone). Obama raised more than $US1 billion – a big chunk of it through micro-donations (as small as $5) solicited online.

(Public funding, which John McCain opted for last time around after a financially exhausting primary race, would have amounted to $US180 million. That’s a modest total by the standards of a US Presidential race and, more, has to be spent evenly across each state by population rather than focused on battlegrounds.)

STUPID: Donald Trump: If he had to push his conspiracy theory that Obama was born outside the US, did he have to call it the Birther movement? The developer rounded off his campaign with a tizzy on Twitter (most of which has since been deleted).

SMART: Old fashioned leg work. High tech, social media and data mining is cool, but the Wall Street Journal said the Obama campaign’s much bigger number of field offices (122 to Romeny's 40 in Ohio) was worth  2% of the popular vote – which turned out to be the President's winning margin.

STUPID: The Romney backlash. An Onion video (above) is headlined “Shrieking White-Hot Sphere Of Pure Rage Early GOP Front-Runner For 2016” – not a bad summary of many Republicans’ reaction on Twitter. He was too liberal, says Fox News. Right. Whenever a party loses, its base thinks it has to move further to the right (or left) or  blames stupid voters. Either way, you’re half way to losing the next election.

SMART: Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne didn’t stop at snarky tweets when a Romney attack ad, screened in Ohio, said the bailed-out automaker was moving jobs offshore. He gave all Chrysler workers the day off to vote. Romney narrowly lost the state where, where an estimated 1 in 12 jobs are related to the auto industry. Sweet revenge for the Italian, hamfisted campaigning by Romney. 
STUPID: Todd “legitimate rape” Akin. At one point, the Republicans were given a shot at taking the 100 seat Senate from the Democrats in a finely poised race. In the end, the Democrats had a net gain of one as they held their majority, defeating Akin in Missouri, formerly regarded as a safe Republican seat (the party lost a second seat seat in Maine to a Democrat-leaning independent).
Some of the excuse talk about changing US demographics is plain silly. The US has always had a fair number of women, and nobody would describe Ohio has Hispanic. Still, Republicans clearly need to appeal to a broader stretch of the electorate - and not just in brief spurts once every four years.
Finally, if you're Jon Stewart fan, his election debrief is compulsory viewing (if it doesn't load view the full clip on the official Daily Show site here):


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5 smartest, 5 stupidest US election moments