Big Data Won the Election: Why that Matters to Market Rearch


By Walt Dickie, Executive Vice President

Tuesday's election is being hailed as "The Triumph of the Nerds." Barack Obama won the presidential election, but Nate Silver won the war over how we understand the world.

The traditional pundits were on TV, in the papers and blogs, interpreting what they were hearing and feeling. Peggy Noonan:

"Something old is roaring back." ... "people (on a Romney rope line) wouldn't let go of my hand" ... "something is moving with evangelicals ... quiet, unreported and spreading" ... the Republicans have the passion now, the enthusiasm. ... In Florida a few weeks ago I saw Romney signs, not Obama ones. From Ohio I hear the same. From tony Northwest Washington, D.C., I hear the same."

On the other side were the Moneyball data nerds, with Nate Silver carrying their standard:

"Among 12 national polls published on Monday, Mr. Obama led by an average of 1.6 percentage points. Perhaps more important is the trend in the surveys. On average, Mr. Obama gained 1.5 percentage points from the prior edition of the same polls, improving his standing in nine of the surveys while losing ground in just one. ... Because these surveys had large sample sizes, the trend is both statistically and practically meaningful."

The morning after, Paul Bradshaw posted that the US election was a wake up call for data illiterate journalists - the pundits - who "evaluate, filter, and order (information) through the rather ineffable quality alternatively known as 'news judgment,' 'news sense,' or 'savvy."

Bradshaw, and the blogger Mark Coddington, whom he quotes, look beyond the question of which camp "won" or "lost" the election, and see an epistemological revolution in reporting the news:

Silver's process -- his epistemology -- is almost exactly the opposite of (traditional punditry): "Where political journalists' information is privileged, his is public, coming from poll results that all the rest of us see, too. Where political journalists' information is evaluated through a subjective and nebulous professional/cultural sense of judgment, his evaluation is systematic and scientifically based. It involves judgment, too, but because it's based in a scientific process, we can trace how he applied that judgment to reach his conclusions."

But this blog post is about marketing research, not journalism, although as I've argued before the two fields have a lot in common.

When I read Bradshaw yesterday morning, I could hardly help re-writing his observations, since he could easily have been talking about the traditional approach to qualitative analysis. Here's my re-write:

Qualitative analysts get access to information directly from consumers, then evaluate, filter, and order it through their "judgment," "sense," or "savvy." This is how qualitative analysts say to their clients (and to themselves), 'This is why you can trust what we say we know -- because we found it out through this process.'"

Journalistic intuition suffered a severe blow Tuesday, though I doubt it will prove fatal. The data-free intuition of focus group moderators is getting hammered by Silver-esque data-driven analysis, but it hasn't succumbed yet, either.

Still, I have to wonder if the writing is on the wall. I'll leave the last word to Bradshaw:

Journalists who professed to be political experts were shown to be well connected, well-informed perhaps, but - on the thing that ultimately decided the result: how people were planning to vote - not well educated. They were left reporting opinions, while Nate Silver and others reported research.