Part I. Politics and elections: Are there any persuadable voters or is it all just a data game?

The increased use of data and more recently AI, as tools in the search for performance and efficiency, has opened up a new era for companies and organizations, has changed the nature of competition, and has given rise to a high focus on numbers and technology in order to create and implement strategies. Consequently, it has also altered the consulting environment.

I am beginning a series of posts that challenge the excessively data-driven approach in implementing strategies and argue for a re-shift on people and empowering people, not only to achieve the desired outcomes but to build lasting organizational and societal change.

The focus on people and empowering them is at the core of my consulting philosophy at Great Empowerment. My approach doesn’t reject the importance and role of data for success, on the contrary. It proposes a more empowering and creative relationship to data and a more courageous, “out of the box” perspective in setting out goals, designing and implementing strategies.

This first post in the series is dedicated to the limitations of data and data analytics in implementing strategies in politics and electoral campaigns. As we are approaching the electoral year 2024 and the campaign for primaries has already started, I want to emphasis the critical nature of prioritizing people within political strategies, as opposed to an excessive focus on numbers.

Two conversations caught my attention recently in the world of political strategy. One was a comment on the Chuck ToddCast podcast about the “bizarre belief” among Democratic strategists that “everything is a numbers’ game”, which leads them to give up on certain places and constituencies and to the conviction there are almost “no persuadable voters”.

The other was a remark made on Rachel Maddow’s Monday night show by Guy Cecil, who led the Democratic Super PAC “Priorities USA”. His concern was “we fetishized the use of data and analytics. We think there is a magic word or issue and we create caricatures out of our voters.”

Data is now an intrinsic part of any strategy, however behind the data are people and all strategies are implemented with and by people. So here are, in my view, the limitations of data analytics for successful strategies.

One, a narrow data-driven view can actually lead to misinterpreting the numbers and forgetting about human nature. This in turn results in limiting beliefs about people, putting labels, and underestimating voters and what they really care about.

Look no further than the 2022 midterms when Republicans were too eager to proclaim a “red wave” just because the historical numbers said the presidential party loses the midterms and inflation was an issue. During the same campaign even democratic pundits said Joe Biden was wrong to speak about democracy because voters only cared about “kitchen and table issues” and not political process. The elections proved them wrong. Voters did not care about the “midterms fundamentals” and did not deliver a “red wave” to the Republicans. Voters cared about inflation and economy, but so they did about rights – like abortion rights, democracy and decency. Rejecting conspiracies and election deniers was more important than the gas price.

Second, setting up electoral goals and political objectives based on past data limits what seems possible. Numbers should be used to inform and to learn from, not to predict.

This approach leads at best to predictable performance, where a candidate or party can hope to do a little bit better here and there. In this framework, there is no courageous thinking, no reaching out to other groups of people, no motivation to build something bigger, no daring to stretch beyond. Instead of providing openings, data end up as a “box”. All the “upsets” or surprising results were produced by candidates and campaigns who believed in their chances despite the numbers, while their opponents took the numbers for granted.

Third, another risk resides in the use of data to devoid parties of their functions and disbalance the relationship to voters. Just watch how many politicians have lost their drive to inform, persuade, educate voters and have become prisoners of their base.

They do not even have the courage to stand for their own views let alone to reach out beyond a limited group of people. Robert Dahl was defining “enlightened understanding” as one of the criteria of democracy. But today far from enlightening anyone or informing, we have a myriad of Republican politicians and candidates on the far right who have no limit in promoting lies, conspiracies theories and falsehoods or inciting political violence. If it’s all a numbers game, then how you get to numbers doesn’t matter. People don’t matter, democracy doesn’t matter, ideology or policies don’t matter, let alone decency and common sense. In this logic, it is easier to win through voter suppression or gerrymandering than taking the time and making a consistent effort to speak to voters, genuinly listen and try to persuade them.

Last but not least, numbers are interpreted by people, who come with their own stereotypes and beliefs. Data are most useful when you have the ability to set aside what you already think you know, and discover the depeer motivations and conversations behind the data.

So, are there any persuadable voters, besides a very few undecided or independents?

Yes, there are and there can be more. But to “persuade” them candidates, political leaders and parties would have to do a couple of things: give up their preconceptions, and the arrogance of knowing already how people are. They would need to focus on people not numbers. Data would become a tool rather than an obsession. The electoral and political goals should reflect a vision and a courageous future rather than come from the box of predictability. But mostly, candidates and political leaders need to be willing to “invest” in voters on long term rather than to settle for a short-term gain, to aim for a breakthrough rather than for a narrow improvement, and sometimes to reinvent themselves.