The Phantom Legion

When Mark Twain said “it ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so” he was underscoring a principle in information systems before the term was invented.  Above all never corrupt your own database. The most dangerous lie you can make up is the one you go on to believe yourself.


When grassroots organizers working for the Democratic party went to follow up Wisconsin black voters off a 2008 list they discovered a curious thing.  “Sixty percent of Milwaukee’s black voters have disappeared.” Slate explains:

This spring, the League of Young Voters, which was created to mobilize young minority communities, collaborated with the liberal Wisconsin Voices coalition to dispatch teams of young canvassers. Starting in April, they spent eight weeks knocking on 120,882 doors across 208 of Milwaukee’s 317 wards to raise awareness of the gubernatorial recall election scheduled for June. The doors had one thing in common: the voter file said they were all home to a registered voter whom a commercial data vendor had flagged as likely to be African-American.

But the voter file represented a fiction, or at least a reality that had rapidly become out of date. During those eight weeks, canvassers were able to successfully find and interact with only 31 percent of their targets. Twice that number were confirmed to no longer live at the address on file — either because a structure was abandoned or condemned, or if a current resident reported that the targeted voter no longer lived there.

The Slate article suggests that the explanation for the missing voters is the extraordinary hardship which this demographic labors labors under. It links to an NPR article which says that similar efforts at  finding Obama voters are reaching similar conclusions. They’re gone to parts unknown. NPR theorizes this is the result of the housing crisis.


Organizers are discovering scores of vacated homes in key battlegrounds that contributed strong turnouts in the 2008 election. In the past four years, more than 3.7 million homes have been lost to foreclosure, according to market research firm CoreLogic.

And canvassers have been left with voter databases — an indispensable tool for getting out the vote — riddled with outdated addresses and phone numbers.

Since the housing crisis went full tilt in 2008, the same states continue to have the worst foreclosure markets, such as California, Florida, Arizona and Nevada.

Today, three of the eight states with the highest foreclosure rates are presidential battlegrounds: Florida, Ohio and Nevada. Candidate Barack Obama won these states in 2008, but voter frustrations about his economic policies have since led each state to elect Republican governors.

Both the Obama and Romney campaigns say they are working to locate displaced voters, but declined to discuss their methods.

Given months of polling showing that likely Republican voters are more engaged in the election, Democratic officials and strategists in both parties say the Obama campaign has the greater challenge of mobilizing its base.

But foreclosure rates are proxy indicators of other things besides repos — such as hard times or no jobs or declining welfare budgets. Thus one hypothesis is that  core Obama voters have drifted off to other states, cities or neighborhoods with better job prospects or public assistance without leaving a forwarding address.


Although the media spotlight for the next few days will be on millionaire actor Clint Eastwood, the really big uncovered story may be what is happening to the Obama voter base.  A Washington Post article hints  that Romney is aware that not all is quiet under the Big Tent. Romney is targeting former Obama voters, an indication that he sees the possibility of making gains there.

Starting Friday, he’ll be able to tap his huge stockpile of general election cash, a chunk of the $177 million he had on hand as August began. Obama’s campaign and party had $127 million available, according to the most recent public data.

Romney’s cash will be spent primarily on television advertising and get-out-the-vote operations in the most competitive swing-voting states: Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Iowa, Nevada, Colorado and New Hampshire. He’s also targeting North Carolina. And he’s looking at making a more aggressive play for Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, where outside groups have been on the air for weeks.

Is there disquiet among the Obama faithful? Or does it reflect the possibility there were fewer faithful to start with than commonly reckoned. A political analyst who I spoke to said that many of the 2008 Obama voters were individuals who normally did not vote. They came out in the last election cycle because they were strongly motivated at the time. But in the intervening years hard times rekindled their apathy and they have either moved away or crawled back into the margins of poverty their hopes having been raised — and dashed.


Thus, the missing 60% of respondents from the League of Young Voters blockwalking list could really represent the falling away of a phantom army, straggling  from the inflated baseline of Obama supporters, one time joiners whose reappareance in 2012 cannot be taken for granted.

That would explain why Obama was “energizing the base”. It would also explain why Romney was targeting it.

The true facts are the only true guidelines in both physical and political conflict. It would be incorrect to say that the Obama voter base has evaporated without empirical confirmation. But it would also be incorrect to say that it is still there, simply because it was, waiting for its leader’s call to hurl themselves against the Castle Romney. What is the truth? Who has got the numbers?

What do we know for sure that is so?

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