Data can’t tell us everything about politics

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Seth Masket has an excellent item over at Mischiefs of Faction on the dangers of extrapolating from what reporters and political operatives see "on the ground." He is, of course, correct. Even in relatively small districts, with a few tens of thousands of voters, it's easy to go wrong using shoe-leather reporting to make projections. Yard signs, attendance at rallies, conversations with folks at the supermarket: When it comes to forecasting election results, they're all highly susceptible to biases.

Even so, as we come to the end of the election cycle, I'll put in a word for exactly that kind of reporting, as long as it's done correctly. Because it's important to remember that projecting winners isn't the only game in town. 

Good on-the-ground reporting does something important. It helps the reader to understand what the election feels like for citizens as they go through the process of democracy, and especially what it's like for voters from different backgrounds, who may approach the election in different ways. Polling cross-tabs can't tell us what that experience is like in various communities across an enormous nation — they can't even tell us what it's like in all the very different neighborhoods of a mid-sized city. Politics in the U.S. has a richness and diversity to it that's difficult to convey, and good reporters do a great service to the republic just by describing how it looks and feels (and sometimes smells and tastes) in different places.

These stories don't just add color to the polling and horse-race stories. They're important in their own right. The best of them help shed light on what's happening in a way that stories about who's winning can't do. They also offer a reminder that democracy is the rule of the people, not just of the winning side, even as they help remind us that there's no single, typical Donald Trump supporter or Joe Biden supporter. Making generalizations is necessary when trying to understand politics in a nation of 330 million. But it's not enough without gaining an understanding of the individual and small-group level as well.

Even the much-maligned stories about still-loyal Trump supporters in rural diners can be fine as long as they don't try to draw conclusions that aren't warranted. And, of course, that's the trap: We often want to treat such stories as examples of larger trends and predictive of future events. For that, on-the-ground data almost always falls short.

But on their own, and taken for what they're worth, the same stories can explain all sorts of interesting things about politics and an election. What politics feels like may not be predictive, but (if captured correctly) is real nonetheless, and is in some ways just as important as the election outcome or the eventual policies that the winners adopt.

1. Dave Hopkins on the turnout explosion.

2. Eleanor Neff Powell at the Monkey Cage on Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

3. Scott Clement and Emily Guskin on polling in 2016 and 2020.

4. Geoffrey Skelley on what to expect when Pennsylvania votes are counted.

5. Abby Livingston on Eva Longoria, activist.

6. Alex Thompson on Ted Kaufman and transition planning.

7. And my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Francis Wilkinson on organized suburban women and the Democratic position on procedural reform. Very interesting.

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