Culture War: 'Quants' vs. Traditionalists in Politics

The fight over political strategy and commentary

In this image released by Sony Pictures, Brad Pitt, left, and Jonah Hill are shown in a scene from "Moneyball." The film was nominated Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012 for an Oscar for best film. Pitt was also nominated for best actor and Hill was nominated for best supporting actor. The Oscars will be presented Feb. 26 at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles, hosted by Billy Crystal and broadcast live on ABC.

I wrote earlier about the right's problems with Nate Silver. But there's a larger context worth noting: There's also a politico-cultural clash going on on a couple of different levels about data-driven politics.

[Check out political cartoons about the 2012 presidential election.]

See for example Joe Scarborough's recent crie-de-coeur: "Nate Silver says this is a 73.6 percent chance that the president is going to win? Nobody in that campaign thinks they have a 73 percent chance—they think they have a 50.1 percent chance of winning. And you talk to the Romney people, it's the same thing." Silver's odds can't possibly be right, in other words, because everyone knows in their gut that it's an incredibly tight race, and because the national polls say so.

(It's worth pointing out here: Silver doesn't suggest that Obama is going to win 73 percent of the vote, but that if we could run the election 10 times over—which sounds like a definition of Hell—Obama would win seven times. As Commentary's Jonathan Tobin, who is a Silver critic, explains, "His model, like similar attempts to weigh the percentages in baseball games, is a matter of probability not certainty. A game-tying home run in the ninth inning can make previous projections that the team with the lead had a 95 percent chance of winning look silly, even if they were reasonable at the time.")

My friend and former colleague Scott Galupo sees in this reaction something akin to the squabbles one encounters in baseball between the old timers and sabermetricians (Silver of course was a sabermetrician before he became the political equivalent), as does Esquire's Charles Pierce. And that is true to some extent.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

But this statheads (or “quants”)-versus-gut feeling traditionalists split is also manifest in the strategy and tactics of politics. And as Slate’s Sasha Issenberg, who has written a fascinating book, The Victory Lab, about the state of the art of modern politicking, argued Monday, the split currently breaks along partisan lines:

…when it comes to the use of voter data and analytics, the two sides appear to be as unmatched as they have ever been on a specific electioneering tactic in the modern campaign era. ...

"The left has significantly broadened its perspective on political behavior," says Adam Schaeffer, who earned graduate degrees in both evolutionary psychology and political behavior before launching a Republican opinion-research firm, Evolving Strategies. "I'm jealous of them."

Schaeffer attributes the imbalance to the mutual discomfort between academia and conservative political professionals, which has limited Republicans' ability to modernize campaign methods. The biggest technical and conceptual developments these days are coming from the social sciences, whose more practically-minded scholars regularly collaborate with candidates and interest groups on the left. As a result, the electioneering right is suffering from what amounts to a lost generation; they have simply failed to keep up with advances in voter targeting and communications since Bush's re-election.

Is anyone surprised that the GOP—the party of climate science denial, polling trutherism, and proud rejection of “smart people”—is uninterested in working with eggheads?

And, as the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein argued yesterday, you can also see that quant-gut tension in some of the media commentary toward Silver. “If you had to distill the work of a political pundit down to a single question, you’d have to pick the perennial ‘who will win the election?’” Klein wrote. “During election years, that’s the question at the base of most careers in punditry, almost all cable news appearances, and most A1 news articles. Traditionally, we’ve answered that question by drawing on some combination of experience, intuition, reporting and polls. Now Silver—and Silver’s imitators and political scientists—are taking that question away from us. It would be shocking if the profession didn’t try and defend itself.”

[Check out editorial cartoons about Mitt Romney.]

The broader arguments about the data versus conventional wisdom won’t be resolved regardless of how this election turns out. I for one hope, however, that despite the Moneyball comparisons, Silver and the Obama-quants don’t end up in the role of Billy Beane, whose A’s ultimately lost. Rather I prefer to recall The Last Hurrah, a political classic about the new political guard beating the old political guard—in this case a former governor of a state clearly modeled after Massachusetts.

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