I found curious Dave Trotter’s pieces over at the Political Hurricane last week about political scientists – I sometimes don’t agree with Mr. Trotter on matters related to the party but on this he is spot on. The reliance of the Democrats on political operatives who have inherent biases and often do not use scientific methods to target or analyze voting behavior has been a problem for the part.
On Tuesday, Trotter told me the following related to why we need to employ political scientists at the party level:
First and foremost, what is the most important is that political science should be based off of theory. The idea is to look at causation. Basically, A causes B. Just seeing if a relationship exists doesn’t mean that causation exists. So, someone needs to be convincing that A causes B, and know the political science literature to back up the reason behind their theory. Second, political scientists know the current literature done by political scientists. One thing that we always hear in politics is that “voters usually vote the way of their parents”. This is something that we hear all the time, but we never know where it came from. Well, it came from Campbell, Converse, Miller and Stokes (1961) in the groundbreaking book The American Voter. Having this knowledge allows political scientists to build strong theory, as it is usually building off of existing literature. Finally, political scientists seek to understand “why” something happens, not “what” happened.
Trotter’s article on the subject can be found here.
My personal feeling is that Trotter is most certainly on to something. Political scientists make a genuine effort to understand why something happens and that is critical to predicting future voter behavior. Whether or not Democrats across the state feel academics should be empowered to help make data-driven decisions (which is after all part of the reason the part exists), one cannot argue that the results doing it the current way have yielded fruit. Many targeting decisions are made based on subjective factors – a lobbyist or special interest groups wants to take our a certain Republican legislator or give another a pass and other factors that mirror these types of considerations.
Analytics and understanding them have transformed so much of what we do on a daily basis. They’ve also transformed business, the internet and sports. In soccer, an industry I am familiar with English clubs now have full-time analytics staff that are employed simply to track and rate players at other clubs for potential transfers in the future. This process is largely data-driven and in addition to the raw data focuses on various causation factors that are then thrown into a formula to rank potential transfers.
Data doesn’t drive the decision making process in the Democratic Party as much as it should or as much as we are led to believe it does. Part of this is due to decision makers being in a Tallahassee-based bubble where those who make the final calls on the allocation of Democratic resources are often influenced even subconsciously by the buzz created by Republican-leaning or incumbent-protecting driven lobbyists and consultant. This prevents a truly objective process and also prevents an emphasis on understand voter behavior and causation.
The next Democratic Party Chair needs to employ data and political science in a more meaningful and substantive way.