Monday, January 9

Crunching Numbers: Why CNN Couldn't Predict Iowa

The CNN article comparing the Republican presidential primary candidate online scorecards just prior to the Iowa caucus last Tuesday (hat tip: Geoff Livingston), demonstrates just how little the network understands social media.

While the lead line — a strong Web presence must be part of every political hopeful's strategy — is right, CNN doesn't really understand what it all means. The online scorecard, as they called it, doesn't mean anything, especially with the number they cherry picked from a handful of social networks.

Sure, CNN qualified it, saying "these numbers may have no bearing on how the candidates actually fare with Iowa caucus goers." May? Show some backbone. They have no bearing on the outcome and they won't in any other state either.

Why online scorecards mean virtually nothing to political campaigns, especially primaries. 

A quick recap of the presidential nominee hopefuls showed Ron Paul winning Twitter, Rick Perry winning Facebook, Ron Paul winning YouTube, and Newt Gingrich in a dead heat with Mitt Romney on Klout.

(Klout? You've got to be kidding me, CNN. Here's the scoop on Klout. Quit pimping it for a score.)

In the end, the Iowa caucus goers returned a decidedly different verdict, placing Mitt Romney (who was dead last on YouTube) and Rick Santorum (who was dead last on Twitter and has the worst possible top Google search result) in first and second (or second and first or perhaps tied, depending on how you see the caucus counting snafu). So what happened?

The social media numbers CNN chose to report don't consider proximity (there was no analysis of how many lived in Iowa), candidate preferences (some people likely follow more than one or all), degree of influence (which way they leaned), the sentiment of the interest (sometimes people follow candidates for comic relief), or the greater body of communication (offline) that bombard people on a daily basis (likely 100 to 1). And about a hundred or a thousand other things.

Heck, those numbers didn't even consider the most rudimentary question — who is registered to vote and for which party, if any. And there was no way to count the closeness of the communication (e.g., one visit by a candidate at your home carries more weight than a gazillion tweets). 

And there is the rub. Not even the silly mention machine that the Washington Post runs on the bottom of its website can account for anything. It counts "tweet" mentions in the last week, with Gingrich capturing 56,000 and Huntsman picking up 23,000. (Huntsman is worth following for the entertainment value lent to his campaign by his daughters, but that's about it.) And yet, more and more media outlets reward candidates for capturing buzz ups by placing their faces on the page, like online advertisements.

The real social media numbers that matter aren't the social media numbers you can find.

None of this is to suggest that an online presence doesn't count. It counts. But no one can really measure what you need to know to have a semblance of an accurate prediction.

The bottom line is some percentage of all their followers, friends, subscribers, and viewers do count. They are registered loyalists who either have influence over caucus goers or are caucus goers — people who will actually share the messages with other people who will listen or, more importantly, vote. In other words ... each candidate had about three peeps in Iowa who fit this description except Santorum and Romney who obviously had four and five, er, five and four, er, four-and-a-half and four-and-a-half each.

In realizing this, it might even one day make us pity any politician who actually takes online advice, never appreciating that it was started by a few hundred people from a foreign country. Oh wait, this already happened. Never mind.

The best online analysis on political campaigns has nothing to do with politics.

Seriously. Because politics tends to be overtly pronounced — bigger success and bigger blunders — this is an excellent opportunity to watch the ebb and flow of the net, immediate reactions that buffet the candidates around like Ping-Pong balls. And while you watch it, don't be overly amused (even if it is amusing) because the same thing can happen to a business any time.

Decent social media people can understand the numbers of any social media program. Good social media people can understand the marketing and public relations ramifications. And great social media people can feel whether or not something is sticky or slippery. There is an art to it, specifically one that appreciates the human behavior of individuals, groups, and the masses.

And, at the same time, if you are interested in this political cycle as it pertains to some future outcome, keep in mind that the Internet has undergone some dramatic changes since the last presidential campaign. The mass adoption that has taken place, along with less scrupulous non-voting outsiders masquerading as concerned voters, will make predictability impossible. And that is the only thing you can count on in all future elections.
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