Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Victory of the SuperNerds


In 2004. Howard Dean’s Presidential bid crashed and burned. That’s what most people remember. Few recall it was a new kind of campaign, one that took him from almost nowhere (sorry, Vermot) to within a single faux pas of winning the nomination. At the time, no one outside of politics realized this new mechanism had changed politics—forever.

Without going into too much political detail (even a little is too much), it goes like this: from Dean the impossible to Obama the implausible to Obama the unstoppable. If that’s too brief, you can look up “trippi dean obama.” Or read Joe Trippi’s book: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything.

Joe was Howard Dean’s campaign manager and on a one shoestring budget he collected a bunch of enthusiastic kids. Dean didn’t have a chance with standard methods, so Joe let these computer-savvy kids invent a new one. It was succeeding until the media circus jumped on Dean’s naïve exuberance.

The immediate political lesson was how these kids had hooked into the Internet. If you know anything about technology, that was inevitable. The larger, more subtle, lesson was nerds rule. It’s not just the Internet; it’s not just computers; it’s knowing how to use these tools to manipulate numbers determining election outcomes.

These are not sour grapes; I have no quarrel with the outcome, but the system needs to be changed. Yes, candidates put on a show (much like professional wrestlers), but there is no substantive discussion, and the debates are right out of Jerry Springer. The actual results come from the Electoral College, a system as far removed from reality as the derivative markets that screwed our economy.

The candidates are not interested in influencing voters, not even the undecided. Their main concern—to which they apply this new-style political machine—is doing the math. Hi-tech tools predict voting behavior so accurately campaigns can put their effort (and money) precisely where it will give the biggest payoff. The prize goes to the best number crunchers. Until we fix the Electoral College, nerds will continue to rule.

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