Data

No, Big Data Didn't Win the U.S. Election

Don't believe the hype that a U.K. company deserves credit for Donald Trump's victory.

Who's running who?

Photographer: Ben Torres/Bloomberg

One of the most enjoyable parts of the fallout from a big political upset is the victory dance of those who claim they brought it about. In the aftermath of Donald Trump's victory, a legend is being built around London-based Cambridge Analytica, which advised Trump's campaign using "big data" -- one of the most magical phrases in tech.

That legend should be taken with a grain of salt, though. Trump didn't really win because he ran a smarter, more tech-savvy campaign than Hillary Clinton.

On Nov. 3, Jim Messina, who managed President Barack Obama's re-election campaign in 2012, published an op-ed piece in The New York Times that concluded, "As we move into the final days of the 2016 election cycle, the smart money is on the campaigns -- like Mrs. Clinton's -- that are leveraging the power of data to find every last vote they can." The Trump campaign, Messina claimed, wasn't doing that, having learned no lessons from Obama's success.

Messina also held that "big data" was an outdated concept and the future of political campaigning depended on what he termed "little data": "Huge data sets are often less helpful in understanding an electorate than one or two key data points — for instance, what issue is most important to a particular undecided voter." Buzzwords are treacherous, though; getting to Messina's "little data" -- ideally, targeting messages to every individual -- is exactly the point of "big data" research. And, just like Clinton, Trump paid for the assistance.

Senator Ted Cruz was the first Republican presidential candidate to hire Cambridge Analytica, whose approach is based on a combination of data collection -- from social networks and any big database it can get its hands on -- and psychometry, an approach that maps personality based on the so-called OCEAN criteria: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. This is "little data" concentrated to a pinpoint: The researchers attempt to figure out the psychological profile of every voter who could be susceptible to a campaign's message. Then, they advise the campaign on microtargeting the messages by pushing, for example, a candidate's outsider credentials to a low-conscientiousness individual or his solid service record to a high-conscientiousness one.

I heard Cruz's staffers brag about their data-driven campaign in Iowa, where Cruz won the primary. They smugly explained that they knew where to send each postcard, whom to call, on which doors to knock. Then I heard distraught voters on local conservative talk radio complain about a flyer Cruz sent out. It looked like a government document and exhorted Iowans to caucus to "improve your score" as voters. One former Cruz supporter even wept about what she described as a crude attempt to dupe her. All the data gathering and psychological profiling didn't keep Cruz from a blooper that Trump immediately exploited

Then, of course, Cruz fell hopelessly behind Trump. I doubt Cambridge Analytica would have found its way to advising the Trump campaign had Steve Bannon not been on its board of directors. In October, however, both Bannon and the company were on board, and Bloomberg News reported that Cambridge Analytica's data scientists were looking for voters who could save the election for Trump or lose it for Clinton. Both groups were bombarded with ads on social networks: Enthusiastic Trump supporters got ones that would get them even more fired up, and reluctant Clinton backers ones that would reduce their motivation to vote. For example, the Trump campaign showed black voters a clip of Clinton's "superpredator" remark.

Again, I would have believed in the efficiency of these shamanic manipulations had I not been the recipient of numerous e-mail messages from the Trump campaign that designated me as a "Big League Supporter" and doggedly asked for contributions and moral support, though I am disqualified as a Russian citizen. Whatever contact lists Trump's data team had, it didn't even match them against open social network data. Cambridge Analytica's microtargeting was obviously failing in my case. Even though I'd given my e-mail address to the campaigns of Bernie Sanders's and Clinton, too, as I registered for their rallies, they didn't senselessly bombard me with messages as Trump did. 

Now, Cambridge Analytica is in great demand. Media outlets tout it as the great Trump-maker and rarely fail to mention its involvement in the Brexit campaign. A story in the Swiss weekly Das Magazin that describes the company as the dark mastermind behind the Trump win is making the rounds on German-speaking social networks, and I'm pretty sure Cambridge will make lots of money off European populists who dream of Trump's success. The days when Clinton was supposed to be riding a big data machine to victory are forgotten.

Had she won, Clinton's head of analytics, Elan Kriegel, would be where Cambridge Analytica is now. But in a contest of sorcerers, the loser is never truly magical.

Michal Kosinski, a Stanford professor, was one of a small group of researchers that pioneered the marriage between psychometry and big data. I asked him whether he believed big data had won the day for Trump.

"Obviously, it is not big data analytics that wins the election," he wrote back. "Candidates do. We don't know how much his victory was helped by big data analytics."

You won't hear this blunt message from companies that peddle Kosinski's methods to politicians. What they're selling is not exactly snake oil, though it can work as a placebo for panicky candidates who are down in the polls with weeks to go before Election Day. Data science and its applications to psychology are promising fields that, as Kosinski notes, tread a thin ethical line because of their treatment of private data. But just like artificial intelligence or, say, the blockchain, they aren't killer apps that can ensure a political victory or business success. During the U.S. election campaign, I watched Cruz campaign tirelessly in Iowa, making up to seven stops a day in unheated barns and tiny diners. I watched Trump improve his campaigning technique and crisscross the country with a message that wasn't microtargeted but that resonated powerfully with many people I met.

I also watched Clinton fail to connect, even though her campaign made use of data analytics before Trump got into that game. There is no scientific cure for this kind of thing, and no victory elixir.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net

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