The Quant Takeover of Election 2012 (Or, What Nate Silver Means For Advertising)

Nate Silver’s perfect forecast of the electoral map outcome in yesterday’s presidential election has created a stir in digital marketing circles almost as much as it has in political and publishing ones — and it’s easy to see why.

There’s a comfortable analogy here for the media ecosystem. Just as Silver — via the New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog — presents a welcome  alternative to the bias inherent contemporary political analysis, so does data-driven media planning offer an improvement on the subjective decision making that has long dominated media planning.

But the similarities don’t end there. Here are a few more lessons from Silver’s (and Obama’s) big night.

People Matter. A former baseball forecaster and poker player, Silver outdid his own 2008 educated guesswork – which correctly pegged the Obama/McCain race outcome in 49 out of 50 states.

One interesting facet of FiveThirtyEight’s rise over the last two election cycle is that a human being led the charge. Not only that, the human in question — statistics brainiac that he is — works for a tweedy news organization rather than, say, Google. One might reasonably have expected a technology or platform company to come up with the first statistically sound model for predicting the results of a close democratic election. That’s not how it played out.

The same is true in the technology-driven marketing world. Humans are still required to set values and make sense of data, and that will continue to be the case.

More data is better. Silver’s formula analyzes and handicaps political polls. He not only aggregates polls, but sets a statistical probability that each one is correct, and then extrapolates that to a national result.

Silver was able to comfortably dismiss respected polls such as one by Gallup showing an edge for Mitt Romney because of the surfeit of data in the rest of his model — which made the anomalies more readily apparent. In digital media circles, this calls to mind the cardinal sin of optimizing a campaign on too narrow a data set.

Ad Measurement Is Harder Than What Silver Did. In the FiveThirtyEight analogy, a vote can be considered analogous to a click. But there’s no electoral equivalent to an impression. A citizen either voted or she didn’t. From the standpoint of cross-channel attribution, the problems presented to digital ad buyers are arguably much larger than those posed to a poll aggregator like Silver.

No Model Is Perfect. This morning we’re hearing cautionary warnings against reading too much into Silver’s predictions. The thinking goes, FiveThirtyEight was able to predict Obama’s victory in swing states the same way any an armchair pundit could see how uncontested states would go – by looking at the history of polls and election results in those states, along with some other factors. Silver pulled off a more granular feat by guessing results in states where the results were much closer but by no means unpredictable.

Slate’s Daniel Engber writes, “That doesn’t mean that Silver’s magic model works. It means that polling works, assuming that its methodology is sound, and that it’s done repeatedly.”

Still, it’s safe to say data is having a moment on the political scene. Hi ho Silver.


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