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Geeks (with stats) shall inherit the Earth

MyView •Â Election results point to need for more cooperation, better messages


The most enduring narrative of 2012 might be a simple reminder of the familiar maxim: Numbers do not lie.

Nate Silver of The New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog, whose polling composite model was consistently criticized by establishment media, correctly predicted all 50 states in the Electoral College.

The Obama campaign’s reliance on demographic data points was credited in many post-election accounts as a substantial reason that President Obama’s voters turned out to the polls in numbers similar to the 2008 election.

In the same vein, demographics dominated the narratives in local elections as well. Democrats were able to gain four seats in the Oregon House, largely due to wins in suburban districts such as Hillsboro and Troutdale, where Democrats have small but significant registration edges.

Ballot measures in Washington concerning marijuana decriminalization and same-sex marriage narrowly passed on the strength of younger voters with more progressive social beliefs.

Renewed momentum

At first glance, this “demographics as destiny” mentality might seem to fundamentally change the nature of both local and national politics. If one can simply enter the characteristics of a district, state or nation into a computer and get projected results of an election, what happens to the speechwriter whose job it is to write stirring narratives to woo undecided voters?

Selfishly, I might ask what happens to the political pundit who has read tea leaves for years to predict elections, only to be replaced by a more advanced version of the spreadsheet?

Most importantly, what happens to local and national Republicans, for whom the numbers promise to be even more daunting in future elections?

Fortunately for all parties threatened by the rise of the statistician, the most fluid demographic characteristic of voters is party identification. Campaigns and rhetoric still matter, and numbers can change. There is no reason that Republicans, both locally and nationally, cannot stem the tide of demographics to remain competitive. To do so, however, Republicans must change the course of their messaging; instead of crafting messages that attempt to move voters toward the more extreme elements of their party, they must begin to craft messages that meet voters where they are.

Subtle changes in the messaging of national Republicans are already occurring, as issues such as immigration reform are seeing renewed momentum despite strong resistance from their base. While the evolution of many Republicans on immigration issues might well be met with skepticism by critics, such moves are necessary to rebrand the Republican Party with a growing Latino voting constituency.

The negotiations on the “fiscal cliff” also give the GOP an opportunity to show voters that they represent more than obstructionism.

Cooperative spirit

In Oregon, the GOP needs a message that is distinct from the national party. One would think that the party of Tom McCall and Mark O. Hatfield would have little difficulty distinguishing itself, but that identity has faded. In the legislative minority, Republicans would be wise to find a messaging strategy that explains where they find agreement with Gov. John Kitzhaber and the Democrats as well as specific issues where they wish to create distinction. That narrative may not be easy to create, but it would be rewarding for the long-term prospects of the party.

Democrats should be careful not to rest on demographic destiny. If national Democrats take demographic groups for granted, those groups may well move out of their column in future elections.

Kitzhaber and Oregon Democrats should remain mindful that control of the Legislature is not license for one-party rule. If the same spirit of cooperation that existed in the split House does not return during the next session, suburban Democrats can certainly become suburban Republicans.

For the time being, however, the statisticians have spoken. Long live the statisticians.

Joseph Gantt of Beaverton is director of forensics in Lewis & Clark Colleges Rhetoric and Media Studies Department.