Congratulations, Barack Obama: You have prevailed in the nerdiest election in the history of the American Republic.
If 2008 was about hope and change, 2012 was about data and memes. The unemployment rate. The effective tax rates. The 47 percent. The budget deficit projections. Of all things, the Reddit AMAs.
Same goes for understanding the elections. Never mind the baby-kissing, the fish fries, the bus tours and the conventions. What mattered in 2012 was data, and the tools to process it — which were so abundant, you could thankfully tune out the pundits. If it could be quantified, it was collected. If it could be collected, it was memed. If it could be memed, it was disputed. The disputes were answered with more data.
Probably the most important datum of the election: 7.9 percent. That’s the national unemployment rate. It’s the lowest of Barack Obama’s presidency — though by a whisker, and higher than the 7.6 percent unemployment Obama inherited in January 2009.
This number drove observers absolutely insane, but not just for the sensible reason that chronically high unemployment is a national crisis that decimates people’s lives. It drove people around the bend because they thought that Obama had the Bureau of Labor Statistics manipulate it so he could win the election. Former GE CEO Jack Welch looked at September’s unemployment finding of 7.8 percent and compared the U.S. to “Soviet Russia,” in the sense that the unemployment rate was a skewed “piece of data released by central headquarters.”
More rationally, the pain of chronic high unemployment is the reason millions of voters latched on to Mitt Romney’s much-touted plan to create 12 million jobs in four years — which would outperform the most recent economic booms.
Everywhere you went, virtually or physically, the Obama and Romney campaigns followed you. Did you start noticing Romney ads popping up in your browser, even if you just went to his website briefly and had no intention of voting for him? That was because of browser tools the candidates used or built to harvest data. Campaigns and political strategy firms paid good money for your web usage data, filtered it through their predictions for associating your browser history with your political affiliation — NPR junkie? You lefty, you — filtered it again through publicly-available elections data and slipped in a candidate’s plea for $5. Time reports that Obama’s homebrewed datamining dives — given sublimely geeky nicknames like Narwhal and Dreamcatcher — helped the campaign determine such minutiae as which celebrities made the most compelling pitchmasters to demographics as specific as deep-pocketed West Coast women aged 40 to 49. Ironically, Obama’s techniques drew on those George W. Bush used to win re-election in 2004, which themselves drew on the synthesis of piles of consumer data. Team Romney designed a vote-tracking data hunt called Project Orca to track “the hour-by-hour whims of the electorate,” according to the Washington Examiner, but it apparently crashed in the final hours of the race: “Somebody said Orca is lying on the beach with a harpoon in it,” an aide said.
Your social media habits, browser history and mobile apps usage were goldmines for national politics. Separately, Google, Facebook and Twitter rolled out their own tools to help you watch the results roll in.
And of course, no election in the internet age is complete without politics-themed memes — an endless, inexhaustible supply of DIY memes.
When Romney said, bizarrely, during a presidential debate that he kept “binders full of women” as governor, the internet created parody Twitter accounts and Tumblrs for Binders Full of Women before the debate ended. Romney’s hidden-camera video showing the candidate deriding the “47 percent” of hopeless Obama voters as indigent and government-dependent spurred an avalanche of liberal outrage, powered by Tumblr. Obama did an Ask Me Anything on Reddit, resulting in Reddit’s biggest traffic ever, and came back to Reddit to say thanks on Election Day. Separately, the often-aloof Obama had to defend himself against charges of being “Spock-like,” which the internet adored — as it adored turning Romney into a robot. (Seriously, even John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic version of Romney, got in on that meme.)
There were even Meta-Memes: What About Your Gaffes became a great, and incisive, way to mock the frivolity of the press corps, hinging off a dumb-ass “question” shouted to Romney in July. Obama being the First Meme President itself became a meme. The internet, full after eating itself, wiped its mouth with the election.
Data was also the story of how this election was analyzed. Obama won the election. But Nate Silver of The New York Times completely reshaped its coverage. Silver steadied the nerves of liberals and rattled the teeth of conservatives, all through a proprietary model of poll aggregation and weighting. Silver, who called the 2008 election with stunning accuracy, sought to do for politics what sabermetrics did for baseball: Factor out as many subjective judgments as possible, to determine who would win the race. Conservatives noted that Silver’s model consistently favored Obama and smelled a rat, giving rise to the alternative Unskewed Polls (and, inevitably, the sardonic hashtag #unskewedpolls).
Silver’s model is disruptive. It implicitly calls into question the utility of political pundits, and the pundits struck back. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Politico’s Dylan Byers were among the mainstream journalists rolling their eyes at Silver, and others went way further, calling Silver effeminate, as if that refuted his model. (Naturally, the internet provided Is Nate Silver A Witch). Whatever the outrage against Silver, political quantification is likely here to stay, because, as Zeynep Tufecki wrote for WIRED, it strips much of the superficiality away from political reporting (and helps confront innumeracy, too). A good statistical model > cable news > horserace tweets.
But not everything can be quantified — particularly, freedom and security. And a wag might say that those issues took a backseat in 2012. Here are two percentages that help quantify both: 600 percent and 9.4 percent. 600 percent is the increase in warrantless surveillance over the last decade — under George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Neither Romney nor Obama had anything substantive to say about civil liberties. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
And 9.4 percent is the scheduled annual cut to practically every aspect of the Defense Department for a decade under a legislatively-devised mechanism for slashing the deficit. Obama and Romney both have an opinion on that latter percentage: they hate it, and want the defense cuts averted, even though neither laid out a plan to avoid them. Want more defense figures? Try 350 and $8 billion. That’s the number of ships in Romney’s supersized Navy fleet, up from 285 today; and the projected additional annual cost for the shipbuilding surge, on top of about $19.8 billion today. Romney made expanding sea power a centerpiece of his defense policy, bashing Obama for presiding over the smallest fleet since 1916 — resulting in the instantly memed Obama rejoinder that the military also has fewer horses and bayonets.
There was another invisible, security-related data point: 3,000. That’s a credible, if unconfirmed, estimate of how many people — civilians and terrorists alike — have been killed in U.S. drone strikes since 2004. Obama dramatically intensified and institutionalized the strikes. Romney endorsed them. Again: don’t say you weren’t warned.
So congratulations, still-President Obama. You survived the onslaught of geekdom, wonkery and nerdgasms. Your reward is to keep governing a country with deep unemployment, uncertain economic recovery and continued political acrimony, and keep navigating America through a world that features persistent terrorism and, perhaps soon, a nuclear Iran. KTHXBAI.