Editor's note: This piece was co-authored by Shawn McCoy.
In a scene from the book and film Moneyball, Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane meets with his scouts as they prepare for the draft. The scouts, who have spent years studying the game, are convinced they know how a good ball player “looks.” Their experience and knowledge lead them to see the game a specific way, but behavioral economics teaches us that this is also a source of overconfidence in their judgments. Rather than gauging actual performance and contribution to the team, the scouts debated players’ merits based on looks. Billy Beane had to keep reminding them, “We’re not selling jeans here.”
Think politics is any different? It’s not. Studies have shown political experts consistently fail at forecasting future outcomes. In fact, they do worse than random guessing. Our brains jump to conclusions that fit into a narrative of how we see the world. We try to simplify complex situations by viewing them in the context of the past, and an encyclopedic knowledge of recent campaigns leads us to fit candidates of a new cycle into a mold from prior years.
President Obama and his team changed the way campaigns are run. In the evolution of campaigns, their greatest leap forward came from the way they both collected and analyzed data. From voter and donor targeting models to experiment-informed programs to turnout simulations to TV-buying optimization, data-driven decision making was central to their operations. The Obama campaign gave Republicans a glimpse of what the modern campaign should look like. If Republicans are serious about gaining seats in the midterms and taking back the White House, campaign managers and party strategists will need data geeks to guide campaign strategy.
A good campaign manager knows her stuff. She can tell you that Mitt Romney lost Arlington County by 46,795 votes, that OH-06 is inefficiently spread over four media markets, or that a majority of Dubuque voters are Catholic. She hears feedback from field staff, knows that more volunteers are needed in a particular field office, and sees the crosstabs show her candidate doing poorly with women. She juggles her resources, targeting rural voters with a new mailer, going up with 1000 points on debt messaging, and making sure the candidate has time in his schedule for fundraising calls.