Why Campaigns Are Smart and Policymakers Are Dumb

There are lots of things to hate about political campaigns.

From the never-ending attack ads to the vague but inevitable pleas for “change” on both sides, from the repeated half-true talking points from candidates to the baseless grand claims of pundits, it’s easy to get irritated. And no doubt many Americans — especially those in swing states — look forward to getting on with their lives post-Election Day.

Though it may be surrounded by triviality, however, presidential campaigns are showing an increasing and admirable level of sophistication in their execution plans. Each election, the campaigns gain a better and better understanding of the electorate, and use that information to improve their decision-making.

How exactly do they do that? First, they ask, how likely is this guy to vote for me? The answer to that informs their tactical decisions. If there’s a 99% chance he votes for the other guy, the best bet is probably to just write him off. If there’s a 99% chance he’ll vote for me, on the other hand, I don’t need to spend much effort persuading him — but I want to do everything I can to make sure he votes. And if there’s a 50% chance he votes for me? In that case, I’m going to try to find out what he likes better about me, and accentuate it.

This, in a nutshell, is what “big data” — silly buzzword or not — is about: used well, data improve decision-making. The more of it a campaign has, the better and more targeted its decisions can be.

In some ways, it’s exciting that the campaigns are using these techniques. With everyone on the team rowing together toward the same goal, friction is minimal; a well-executed operation can significantly improve their chances of success.

Still, these improvements likely don’t help the average citizen. Each campaign gets better at crafting messages and allocating resources, but the political game is still a zero-sum battle. The sides get better at marketing themselves, but not at governing. It’s similar with political contributions: if I give $100 to Obama and you give $100 to Romney, each candidate gets a little more to spend on commercials, and the only party that really wins is the TV network that gets their ad dollars.

But, you ask, couldn’t these same politicians apply these methodologies to the decisions they make when they’re actually in office?

They certainly could, but it’s not happening very much today.

In a campaign, everyone’s moving toward the same clear goal. They want to beat the other guy, and they’re going to pull out all of the stops to get there. That means using data — which obviously help — with decision-making.

The world in which the next president will govern is a very different one. Unlike campaigns, many government outposts aren’t even collecting data, let alone using it wisely.

Both parties are to blame. On the left, for instance, there’s often an aversion to collecting data that might be used to fire ineffective employees. Unions still wield tremendous power in Washington and in states, and their guiding principle is job security (and higher wages) rather than workplace effectiveness. There are too many ineffective teachers in our schools. But because their unions are primarily focused on teacher job security, it’s tremendously difficult to find and replace those who aren’t doing a good job.

On the right, there’s often a gut response against “big government,” even for tasks where government might be able to make more effective decisions than anyone else. President Obama was attacked mercilessly during the healthcare debate for the notion that the government would “ration” healthcare. But rationing is simply another word for resource allocation, something every individual and every business does. Health care already comprises over 15% of GDP; if we want that number to stop growing, we need to understand effectiveness and costs and ration intelligently.

There’s certainly some room for optimism. Inane campaign statements aside, Romney and Obama have both shown themselves to be smart and pragmatic. Romney bucked many of the orthodoxies of his party when he worked on healthcare reform in Massachusetts. Obama has strayed from the traditional Democratic alliance with teachers’ unions, taking steps a toward accountable, data-informed education policy.

Still, the collection and use of data by governments leaves much to be desired. Where campaigns are able to move swiftly, policy is often driven less by effectiveness and more by the goal of winning points with the electorate. As a result, there are many bad reasons data aren’t collected: bureaucracy, vague fears of privacy, abstract concerns around “big government”. Without good data, decision-making suffers.

Today is Election Day. We’ve now seen months of data-led sophistication from our political leaders. May the winner bring that same sophistication to the policies of his administration.

Mike Greenfield founded Bonafide, Circle of Moms, and Team Rankings, led LinkedIn's analytics team, and built much of PayPal's early fraud detection technology. Ping him at [first_name] at mikegreenfield.com.