Big Data Only Knows So Much

In many ways, I’m growing increasingly weary of listening to dissections of Mitt Romney’s loss. Republicans are looking for some magic bullet, imagining if they had just eaten a few more burritos and wished more folks Vaya Con Dios they would have swept into the White House. The Democrats, for their part, have turned campaigning into such a science they feel certain they can predict every voter’s future vote based on past votes, income, gender, age, and coffee preference. Starbucks drinkers, I’m sure, voted for Obama. This was, as others have noted, an election where big data triumphed.

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There’s a part of me that’s really impressed by the intensity of information regarding voting blocs. There’s a much larger part, though, that’s totally creeped out at the relative predictability of the data. I can’t help but imagine, mostly because I watch too many movies, that we will see a world soon where my phone, car, and television targets political ads at me based on my purchases, viewing habits, and the cookies collected from my web searches. (And I’m fairly certain the ads targeted at my teen-age sons will be much more titillating–yes, I chose that word on purpose.)  I drink HEB coffee in the morning, Schlitz beer at night, listen to John Mellencamp, watch sports, read contemporary novels, and can’t wait for each new episode of The Walking Dead. I’m sure that makes me pretty predictable, although I’m a little nervous about what it predicts now that I put those things in a list.

But I also think we might be over-complicating things just a tad bit as we develop these polling models. Certainly, my economic and life choices offer some insight into my political beliefs and, to a certain extent, offer some predictability regarding my children’s initial political participation. My wife and I vote, talk politics, and are relatively active participants in various organizations. As such, our children will, at least initially, follow in those footsteps. I’m sure no one is ever surprised when they do those elementary school polls and the results predict the election. Are we really surprised that 5th graders reflect their parent’s beliefs?

But this isn’t a fool-proof model for all age groups. Voters, once they get to their 20s and early 30s, are probably less a product of their parent’s politics than they are products of the politics in their formative years. In other words, I’m in my early 40s and I’m settling in, solidifying my identity based on economic and personal decisions. Short of me voting in opposition to my best interests just to be ornery, I’m becoming increasingly predictable. But a 25 year old? Sure, we can ask how her parents voted, where she went to school, if she is employed, etc, but we can probably simplify this even more–who was president when she was in high school?

For me, my first presidential vote was heavily impacted by Ronald Reagan. Born in 1969, Reagan took office when I was 11 and ruled the roost until I graduated from high dukakisintankschool. Reagan, for all his conservative bluster, was a westerner through and through. Socially libertarian, fiscally pragmatic, and rhetorically brilliant (or, at least, brilliant at hiring speech writers), he set a pretty high bar. Admittedly, the older I got and the more I learned about Reagan, the less I liked him, but, and this is important, his is the presidential model I’m looking for every four years. When I was 18, Michael Dukakis didn’t have a chance even before he got into a tank.

The long term mistake of big data isn’t the technological dehumanization that’s possible. Voters can’t be reduced to a type, partly because presidential elections aren’t necessarily about issues as much as they are about how closely a candidate resembles our embedded image of the ideal president. People who came of age during strong presidents tend to seek out that type–Reagan and Clinton are, basically, the same person (separated by a zipper). Kids (and I’m of an age where I can start to call 18 year-olds kids) voted this time around against a Republican establishment that gave them Iraq, budget deficits, and the anti-Reagan president George Bush–socially conservative, fiscally irresponsible, and rhetorically challenged. Mitt Romney wasn’t exactly a change of pace and young voters stayed away from him. (In fact, I’m heartened by the fact that young voters recognized the duplicity of Romney and Ryan’s budget ideas. Heck, my 15 year old son listened and recognized the math didn’t make sense.)

In some respects, I see Barack Obama’s election as important not necessarily for what he might do now. Hopefully, he can balance the budget and do great things, but his greatest contribution is simply winning an election as an articulate, intelligent African-American while my sons are in high school. In simple terms: my sons don’t know what it’s like not to have a Black president. Barack Obama represents the emergence of a new stereo-type for my kids. The Black guy might get killed first in the horror movie, but if he survives he can also get elected president. And, importantly, he doesn’t need the great white hope to ride in and save the day.

I’ll admit that if Ronald Reagan ran for president today, I’m not sure I would vote for him. Not only am I opposed to the idea of a zombie president, but unless being dead changed his politics I doubt we would agree on much. But, I’ll also admit that it would take a pretty strong candidate to make me vote against him, undead or not. Mitt Romney lost, quite frankly, because he didn’t give voters a good enough reason to vote against President. And, he certainly, didn’t do anything to convince young voters he was not George Bush. We don’t really need big data to know such a thing.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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