How Statistics are Used in Elections

How Statistics are Used in Elections
How Statistics are Used in Elections

Statistics shape the world around us. In the United States, especially, statistics are integral to the election process and ultimately influence nationwide decisions that lead to changes in legislation, policy, laws, and regulations. Elections allow the population to exercise representative democracy by selecting chosen individuals to occupy public office and make critical decisions that impact citizens. Individuals who exercise their right to vote cast ballots that officials then tally and transform into statistical data, ultimately determining the election's result. However, statistics play a part in the election process long before voters cast their ballots. Officials use statistics to forecast election results, inform campaign strategy, and micro-target individuals based on available data. 

An understanding of how statistics are used in elections can enhance transparency for voters and encourage voters to advocate for data privacy and security. Additionally, those interested in mathematics, statistical applications, and political science may consider a career as a Political  Statistician. Michigan Technological University’s online MS in Applied Statistics prepares students for political science careers that require statistics. 

3 Ways Statisticians Use Statistics During Elections

Statistics play an important role in politics. Throughout history, government bodies used statistics in the election process to support the formal decision-making process that determines who will fill offices in the legislature. However, technological advancements, the accumulation of data, and the maturation of statistical models have made elections increasingly complex. 

For example, in the past, politicians and their supporters would cast a wider net when campaigning for votes. Today, data analytics and digital resources allow parties to collect information about the public and hyper-personalize campaign targeting. As a result, modern elections require statistical experts who can manage and leverage data while maintaining ethical standards related to trust, security, and privacy. Learn more about three primary ways statisticians use statistics during elections. 

1. Election Forecasts

Election forecasts use legally available data and statistics to inform the public about the probable outcome of an upcoming election. Political statisticians must use data, reporting, historical patterns, and academic research to create a detailed account of the Senate and House forecasts. In the United States, this process includes disclosing which party is favored to win, the estimated number of seats in each House, and whether or not the outcome will result in a majority government. Statisticians use a forecasting model to transform large data sets into meaningful predictions for future outcomes.   

How to build a successful election forecast model:

1: Create a national database. 2: Clean & layer the data. 3: Plug the data points into a predictive model for forecasting.

FiveThirtyEight is a widely used site supported by ABC News that employs statisticians to build empirical statistical models for accurate election forecasts. The website’s primary objective is to advance public knowledge and promote transparency around voting outcomes. FiveThirtyEight’s statistics are then plugged into a forecast model developed by the American statistician Nate Silver to provide an informed prediction rather than an unskilled guess. This platform is just one example of an election forecast tool that voters can use to stay informed on the political leanings of their peers and influence voters’ decision-making.          

2. Campaign Strategy

How statistics are used in elections has changed dramatically. In recent years, data and statistics have revolutionized election campaigns. Historically, the only data that politicians and their supporters had to garner insights was that data derived from the polls. Today’s data-driven world offers campaign strategists a surplus of data points about past elections, voter preferences, geopolitical influences, microtargeting – the strategy of targeting messages to segmented audiences – and more. New mediums, such as social media, allow campaigns to understand better who their voters are and what they want. In addition, statisticians can harness publicly available data to inform campaign messaging, political priorities, and outreach. 

Campaign research allows parties to explore target audiences' behaviors, attitudes, values, and beliefs to test campaign messaging, creativity, and delivery. According to The Commons Social Change Library, statisticians use the following quantitative and qualitative research methods to inform campaign strategy.

Quantitative Campaign Strategy Research

  • Benchmark Polls
  • Issue polls
  • Longitudinal surveys
  • Member surveys
  • CATI polls (computer-assisted telephone interview)
  • Dial-testing

Qualitative Campaign Strategy Research

  • Deep dive interviews
  • Face-to-face focus groups
  • Online focus groups
  • Online communities 

Once the previous research is complete, campaigners can test various messaging or will move on to test the gap between their voter’s current stance and the desirable vote. Winning campaign messages must define important issues, expose their opponent’s weak points, and empower supporters using facts and impactful storytelling. Statisticians with a marketing background may excel in this area because they have the foundational skills needed to create data-driven campaign strategies, from initial research to distribution. 

3. Microtargeting in Elections

The intersection between data and politics has opened the doors to advanced audience targeting. Political parties and election campaigns use microtargeting to communicate with voters about their initiatives and influence voting outcomes in their favor. Before advanced data and statistics, campaigns often involved grass-roots approaches, including direct mail, home visits, radio, television, and out-of-home marketing campaigns (ex., billboards, posters, etc.). Today, campaigns can leverage social media, digital marketing, and advanced data analytics to reach voters on their devices and tailor campaign messaging on a more personal level. Consumers are accustomed to online stores like Amazon and apps like TikTok, understanding their preferences. Now, political targeting is advancing alongside tech giants to improve the perception of their campaign advertising.   

Micro-targeting uses statistics in a similar manner to election forecasting. First, statisticians must collect and clean data points from a national database and layer publicly available information, including email addresses, phone numbers, employment, education, purchasing patterns, IP addresses, etc. Next, statisticians must use predictive models to indicate who a voter is likely to vote for, how likely a voter is to change their voting preference, how lifestyle choices might affect voting behaviors, and how their values align with topical issues like gun control, the climate crisis, abortion, immigration, etc.  Finally, each group is sorted into different channels and receives personalized campaign messaging based on their beliefs and inclinations. All of this information is then used to deliver the right campaign message, to the right voter, at the right time. 

Advanced microtargeting also leads to increased risks. In a famous example, in 2014,  Cambridge Analytica obtained the private Facebook data of tens of millions of users and sold psychological profiles of American voters to political campaigns. This breach of trust underwent investigation and started a nationwide conversation about the ethical principles of data, political targeting, and power. 

Government action, consumer mistrust, and increased customer competition are bringing a new era. Firms that generate any value from personal data will need to change the way they acquire it, share it, protect it, and profit from it. Statisticians must stay across ongoing legislative efforts and, above all, respect voters’ privacy and security. 

Pursue a Career in Political Statistics With an MS in Applied Statistics

Are you curious about how statistics are used in elections? Are you interested in the data-driven side of political science? Do you have a strong mathematical, statistical, or analytical background? Earn your Master of Science in Applied Statistics online to prepare for an in-demand, high-paying career as a political statistician. 

Michigan Technological University’s online MS in Applied Statistics offers students foundational knowledge in statistical science and methods while utilizing the latest industry-standard statistical and data analysis software. After graduation, you can set yourself apart in the competitive workforce with specialized skills and the accountability to act with integrity, honesty and diligence. 

Upskill for the future and pursue a career in political statistics with Michigan Tech’s online MS in Applied Statistics.