“Most of what campaigns know about voters comes from a core set of public records” – that’s one of the key messages from Eitan Hersh’s pathbreaking study of what data American political campaigns really use, how good it is and where it comes from.
Or in other words, the big data, grassroots-fired war of microtargeting isn’t so much about super accurate data on voters linking cereal eating preferences to views on immigration as about careful computer programmers pulling in a limited number of rather prosaic publicly available datasets. That which generates the media excitement is but a small adornment on top, adding little to the accuracy of the public data or purposes to which campaigns put it, Hersh argues. (A variant on Cowley’s Law applies here.)
This also means that telling the story about political campaigns and data should start with looking at what public data is available – such as names and addresses on the electorate register – yet political journalism on this topic tends to be about the glitzy technology and eager party workers, not about summarising the sources of public data.For the US, the one country he studies, Eitan Hersh moreover concludes that commercial data doesn’t really matter much as it has “comparatively limited predictive power”. Although his book pre-dates the 2016 US Presidential election, a careful look at the evidence suggests there was no major change in this respect.
All that is in the context of a county which is rather different from the UK when it comes to free public data about voters. Not only do many American states have voters record their political affiliation in public when registering (thereby giving parties and candidates free canvass data for the electorate), but also in nearly every state the age of each voter is publicly available. In the UK the former doesn’t happen and the latter only happens for voters who are going to turn 18 during the year.
The availability of the age data means, as Hersh points out, that campaigns therefore are particularly keen to target messages and to segment voters by age because they have that data. Were the state to provide, say, the income of every voter but not their age, then campaigning would flip around to using that far more.
The rules over data determine how campaigns classify and address the electorate and at heart even how campaigns see voters: the data categories which are widely available become the prisms through which voters are classified, understood and targeted.
In the US, Hersh goes on to argue, politicians have in fact often shaped the laws over what data is available in order to benefit their campaigning. That may be different in the UK, but what is the same is how often parties are reliant on small volumes of gathered data supplemented by much larger volumes of publicly available data.
What Hersh writes about the US applies to the UK too: “the fallacy is that modern campaigns are assumed to have accurate, detailed information about the preferences and behaviors of voters. When I dig into advanced campaign databases and show that much of what campaigns perceive about voters is a result of a limited set of public records, and even the most sophisticated campaigns often misperceive voter preferences, I hope to push back against the hype of the information fallacy”. (A point which is also relevant to the over-hyping of the cleverness of data in the commercial world too.)
So there is much that is original myth-busting in Hacking the electorate. Alas there is also rather a lot too of that ponderous academic style of saying what you are going to say, saying it and then saying what you’ve said. But the quality of the myth-busting and the illuminating details of the evidence makes it well worth battling through reading things in triplicate.
One to read, one to learn from and one whose conclusions can be enjoyed – just don’t expect the road to them to be too lively.
If you like this, you might also be interested in The Victory Lab and Ground Wars. Read all three and you’ll get an excellent grounding in the reality behind many of the headlines about modern grassroots political campaigning.
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