Blowing away big data, confirmation bias in Obama win


Confirmation bias is everywhere in society, but it has become an epidemic for those who follow United States politics, no matter if from their bar stools, their couches or their anchor desks.

Matthew Dowd, in an ABC News blog on Friday, used the overblown and undue credit that big data received as an explanation for President Obama getting re-elected to drive this point home. More than anywhere else it seems, Dowd said myths consistently get set in stone in politics. There are several reasons for this. Winners like to seize their mandate by giving their version of why they won. Opponents may want to blame the weather or in this case high technology, anything but their message.

Either way, Dowd said that President Obama did not win the election with technology, or big data."If these three Obama advantages from Big Data to advertising to presidential visits all were determinative of victory, then the difference between the results in target states vs. non-target states should be profound," Dowd said.

Despite the general acceptance that the president's crack-pot team of data scientists was able to set the strategy and steal the win, it just wasn't the case, Dowd said. The Obama campaign didn't do any better in the 12 states that his technology team focused strongly on than he did in the previous election.

The real reasons President Obama won, said Dowd, were: a flawed opponent in Mitt Romney, the macro environment of a recovering economy and Hurricane Sandy, which showed Obama as an effective strong leader. He said crediting big data is just another example of confirmation bias because it was discussed so much by pundits after the election--making Nate Silver a household name--and simply stuck as if it were true.

Here are a few examples of headlines in the aftermath of the election from the tech industry:

  • Barack Obama's Big Data won the US election (Computerworld)
  • The 2012 Election: A Big Win for Big Data (
  • How Nate Silver won the election with Data Science (
  • Big Data the Key to Obama's Win (Silicon Angle)

And here are some form the mainstream media:

  • How Obama's data crunchers helped him win (CNN)
  • Decisive win for big data, "Moneyball" election predictions (Denver Post)
  • 5 Ways Romney Could Have Won the Election With Data, Social and Mobile (Forbes)
  • Obama's big data win and the psychology of everything (BBC)
  • Data Elected Our 44th President (Forbes)
  • Obama's 'Big Data' Victory (Wall Street Journal)

Given this is a tiny sampling of the 665,000 Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) results on "Obama," "election" and "big data," is it any wonder so many people began taking the correlation as gospel?

For more:
- see Dowd's blog

Related Articles:
The big data behind Obama's campaign victory
The Romney campaign and big data
Special report: Big data and the 2012 presidential election