The coming political drone warfare
November 8th, 2012
10:05 AM ET

The coming political drone warfare

By Fareed Zakaria

When I was getting my PhD in political science, the course I probably found least interesting at the time was the mandatory one on statistics. And yet it has probably been the course that has, at a practical level, been the most useful in helping me understand politics, because it gave me a framework and understanding of how to analyze data. So to watch the divisions during the presidential campaign between political operators who think that politics is all art and no science on the one hand, and the statisticians on the other, has been fascinating.

I do think that the social sciences – even economics – are quite different from areas like physics and mathematics, because subjects like international relations require analysis to be textured and historical. However, it is also clear to me that one area where statistical methods have worked very well has been in analysis of voting, because this is an area where you have lots of very clear, tangible data. And you also have much repetition of the experiment, allowing you to reduce the chances of misleading anomalies.

What has this meant in practice this year? Statistician Nate Silver and others have turned these tools on American elections. And in Silver’s case, the results have been extraordinary – he looks to have correctly called all 50 states in yesterday’s election.

More from CNN: The anatomy of Romney's defeat

So why so much handwringing among political operators? Because Silver’s predictions suggest that a lot of what they are paid handsomely to do is actually worthless. Silver’s model has shown Obama in roughly the same place for the last four months – through the conventions, the debates and up until polling day. This suggests that the manipulations and tactics employed by the campaigns over this period have had little impact despite the fact that political operators get paid millions of dollars to effect week-to-week and month-to-month movements in support.

This isn’t just an intellectual divide. You can’t help but feel that when people like Karl Rove were saying that the momentum was with Romney, and were confidently predicting that he was going to win, that it was also in their own interests to be saying such things. After all, this is how political operators make their money, and they are keen to report to candidates that momentum is on their side, suggesting that as long as the candidate keeps writing checks, then he or she has a better chance of winning.

But I think the bigger and more fascinating takeaway from this debate is that the combination of the sophisticated statistical analysis (which can only provide us with this kind of accuracy when it is a big presidential election, during which there are many, many state polls) coupled with micro-targeting of voters, is the future of politics. Why? Because it allows campaigns to spend money incredibly efficiently, for example by placing ads in TV shows that certain audiences are much more likely to watch.

But all this raises a troubling question – if politics gets overrun by all this highly statistical analysis, will it start to look like drone warfare, where what you see outside is merely a shadow, while what is really happening is going on deep inside some control room where a bunch of geeks are analyzing and manipulating data with the latest technology?

So statistical-based targeting may very well be the future not just of American politics, but campaigns elsewhere – one thing we know about U.S. politics is that it is often a trendsetter for the rest of the world. Don’t be surprised if at Britain’s next general election you start seeing American-style, statistical drone warfare.

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Topics: 2012 Election

soundoff (105 Responses)
  1. Algorithmman

    What does everyone think about this?
    google "how algorithms shape our world" and watch the video to the end

    November 11, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Reply
  2. Andrejs Skaburskis

    Nice column for those of us who have to teach that core stats course to unwilling grad students.
    Thank you Fareed!

    November 11, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Reply
  3. JLS639

    "This suggests that the manipulations and tactics employed by the campaigns over this period have had little impact"

    Wrong, the data don't rule out this possibility, but you cannot conclude this from the data. In product advertising, the amount of money spent does not seem to increase sales. However, when advertising revenue is cut, sales drop off and market share goes down. The trick is determining how much advertising is needed to maintain market share. The same could easily be true for politics. Without all the money and campaigning, support might drop. We have no data addressing this possibility.

    November 11, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Reply
  4. Hey

    Obama supporters are doing helluva job of making Obama looking really, really bad in comparision.

    November 11, 2012 at 7:10 pm | Reply
  5. mmi16

    Romney & Ryan lost because nothing they said would add up to anything other than Armagedon of the United States of America.

    November 12, 2012 at 2:09 am | Reply
  6. Sid Airfoil

    We should all read Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" trilogy. He postulates that Psychohistory, a statistical way of looking at past, present and future history, has evolved to the point where we can predict accurately the large-scale movement of historical events. We may be closer to that than I thought!


    November 12, 2012 at 6:49 am | Reply
  7. BOB

    Statistical analysis is really nothing at all like drone warfare. It is simply a poor analogy.

    November 12, 2012 at 7:58 am | Reply
  8. Pliagirist_Zak

    Fareed Zakaria takes small snippets from the Economist and then makes them a full article. Has not learned from his pliagirism charges yet.

    November 12, 2012 at 8:39 am | Reply
  9. bill.x

    Kakaria – in addition to statistics you should have also taken courses in critical thinking and analysis. While net net Obama stayed the same over 4 months despite what the Romney team did was because the Obama team was smarter. Whatever new and damaging crapola the Romney threw, the Obama team countered it. Had the Obama team not done anything, which is what you suggested wasn't necessary, they would have been adversley impacted and lost the election. So step back from your numbers Fareed, and see the big picture.

    November 12, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Reply
  10. Andrey

    Drones are so popular in US: I think one of them should run for a President next time!

    November 12, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Reply
  11. darth cheney

    I think Zaharia is right but misses the larger point. WE – the voters – control things. WE have allowed our process to be reduced to this. WE have shown ourselves to be highly manipulable and not sophisticated consumers of information. WE do not hold politicians accountable for nakedly shameful spin and reversal of previous statements and policies, nor for failure to disclose anything that might commit them. And on and on, ad nauseum. If we did a better job ourselves as an electorate, this cottage industry of market-research driven campaigns would be neither necessary nor particularly helpful for candidates.

    November 12, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Reply
    • Andrey

      Please do not blame yourselves: you do not control things! Both Democrats and Republicans may have different rhetoric but represent the same interests! So nothing really matters!

      November 12, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Reply
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