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A History Of Data In American Politics (Part 3): The 2016 Primaries

Given all the political dust-ups since December, it may be hard to remember one of the earliest controversies in the 2016 presidential primary season. It wasn’t about short fingers or exit polls — it involved data. Several Bernie Sanders staffers were found to have improperly accessed voter information from Hillary Clinton’s campaign — valuable data about voter history, demographics and location. In the months that followed, both Democratic and Republican primary candidates tried to use data to their advantage.

Now that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have effectively sealed the major-party nominations, What’s The Point is checking back in with political-data expert Daniel Kreiss of the University of North Carolina. He joined the show for a twopart series in January on the history of how data has been used in U.S. elections, going all the way back to the 1850s. This week, he breaks down much more recent history: the 2016 primaries.

Clinton is attempting to build on the data edge that Obama had in 2008 and 2012, as well as the larger push by the Democratic National Committee to hire more and more analysts. On the other side, Trump has said he doesn’t have much need for data. His unorthodox campaign may be writing new rules, but Republicans worry that his data-poor approach will have larger implications for the party.

Stream or download the full episode above, or subscribe using your favorite podcast app. Below is a partial transcript. And listen to Part 1 and Part 2 of our history of political data.

Here are the books we discussed in the podcast:

What Trump’s data-poor strategy really means

Jody Avirgan: I kept reading the headlines about Trump telling the Republican National Committee “I don’t want your data,” but I didn’t get a sense of what that actually means. What is he not taking advantage of?

Daniel Kreiss: I don’t know how much we’re going to know about what exactly is going on until the end of the election. Afterward, through a lot of careful reporting and academic work, we’ll be able to discern what exactly happened.

But what I think Donald Trump is saying is that he’s basically outsourcing his field campaign to the RNC. He’s saying that the RNC should be directing his on-the-ground and field efforts. It’s the Republican Party that’s going to be setting up field offices, putting volunteers and paid staffers into the field, using the data that they have, as well as the data that they are generating, to model who is likely to be supporting Republican candidates.

The distinction here is that it’s the RNC … versus a candidate-centric operation, which is what the Clinton campaign appears to be putting together and which the Obama campaign put together in 2008 and 2012. [But] the Republican effort is, at the end of the day, concerned with electing Republican candidates all the way from the House to the Senate. So the Republican Party has to serve many different masters, not just the presidential nominee. All the modeling and the electoral strategy have to be taken with the ends of the party more generally in mind — whereas the Clinton-run strategy can focus just on what is best for electing her to be president.

Avirgan: It also brings up something that was one of the main takeaways from our first conversation, which is that data is not just a tool to win you an election in a given cycle, but it’s an ongoing process. And by Donald Trump not contributing in this cycle to the process, [there are] implications not only for his getting elected [in 2016], but also larger implications for the next cycle and the cycle after that and the attempts to build a voter file for the Republicans.

Kreiss: One of the larger dynamics of this race is the Trump campaign’s failure to raise significant resources to build a campaign infrastructure, as well as a field infrastructure. It means that there are just fewer staffers with presidential experience who are used to working with data and coordinating field efforts, or managing and organizing volunteers … doing experimental testing to figure out which messages work, and so on.

The Obama campaign in 2008 and 2012 hired enormous amounts of staffers — 342 in the 2012 race alone in technology, digital data and analytics. They went on to found lots of firms to house the innovations of these campaigns and then carried them to other races. … And they went to work for other campaigns. They are now working for the Clinton campaign, as well as Senate and House races, up and down the ballot. It’s a dynamic that will have ripple effects.

Elections don’t exist in vacuums; they are shaped by historical currents. And institutions are ultimately built up over time, as are data and technological infrastructure. So this [year’s election] will hurt GOP candidates in elections to come.

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What’s The Point’s music was composed by Hrishikesh Hirway, host of the “Song Exploder” podcast. Download our theme music.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.