Guts or Data? How Do We Know Who’s Going to Win?

There are a lot of predictions about who’s going to win the presidential election. I’ve made mine. It’s interesting to look at the wide variety of opinions, because for the most part, everyone’s looking at the same data. But there are a lot of factors that go into making a prediction.

When Obama was first running for President in the 2008 campaign, he was seen by many to be an improbable choice. He wasn’t the pick of the establishment. He didn’t have a lot of experience at the federal level. We had never had an African-American president. But there was something about him. He moved people with passion, energy, and excitement. It was an intangible something, but it was definitely something. He inspired people. And he won.

Mitt Romney has been a different story. While I’m sure there are people who are passionate about him, passion and emotion are not his shtick. He wasn’t picked to be the nominee of the Republican Party because of the passion he stirred in people, or the charisma he has. He was picked because, among other things, he has a reputation for supposedly being a good businessman. He’s known to be very data-driven. Not a hearts and minds guy, more of a numbers and spreadsheets guy.

But when you listen to the people making the arguments for each candidate’s chances, you get a very different story. Romney’s supporters claim Romney will win, but not because of looking at the numbers, the data, or anything practical like that. They “know” he will win based on their gut. Their experiences. Their feelings about how things are going to go. I’m a firm believer of following your gut, but the numbers just don’t back them up.

If you listen to the people making the argument that Obama is going to win, you also get a different story. The numbers back Obama. Lots of factors – the overall direction of the unemployment numbers, the stock market, consumer confidence, his approval rating, swing state polling – all point to an Obama victory. A win for sure, but not exactly hope and change.

Obama’s campaign in 2008 was actually data driven as well. They had sophisticated technology in place to help identify voters and motivate them to get to the polls. They had a big focus on early voting. They used social media. But this time around, it appears to be much more in the foreground. At least to me. They’re building on what they did in 2008.

Data isn’t always right. I remember a teacher of mine once saying, “Statistics don’t lie, statisticians do.” But it doesn’t have to be purposeful manipulation for data to be wrong. The assumptions they’re using for their statistical models could be wrong. The electorate could look different than they think. Turnout could be different than they think. Polls have a margin of error. There’s a lot of reasons relying on the data alone could get you a wrong answer.

The same is true with your gut, though. Steve Schmidt was on The Rachel Maddow Show last night and said (I’m paraphrasing here), “All the data point in one direction, but I have a feeling it could go the other way.” He’s a veteran political operative, with years of experience and political instincts that have carried him far. But it doesn’t sound right. It sounds to me a lot like trying to project confidence, the same way that the Romney campaign is trying to do. I have a hard time buying it. I have to go with the data here.


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