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Artificial intelligence trumps political experts

- April 1, 2016
On Dec. 9, pollster Frank Luntz organized a focus group of Donald Trump supporters to ask them some questions. None of them participated in the focus group described in this article. (J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)

How about that!

A year ago today, on April 1, 2015, as part of a project on prediction at the New York Universe – Center for Data Superiority (NYU-CDS), I gathered together a political scientist, a data-driven journalist, a traditional campaign reporter for a major newspaper and an artificial intelligence application created by a major international business machine company to discuss the state of the primary contests and to collect their predictions for the eventual nominees. I promised to only reveal these predictions a year later. I also agreed to use pseudonyms for all four participants and – with some regret – allowed them to choose their own pseudonyms.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our discussion.

Me: Please let me thank you all for joining me today! So who do you think will be the Republican nominee and why?

Etan Gold (data-driven journalist): Polls offer the best opportunity for insight into the eventual winner. If you look at the most recent national Quinnipiac poll, you will see that Scott Walker (18 percent) and Jeb Bush (16 percent) are the only candidates polling in double digits. Of those in single digits, only Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee even reach 8 percent, so these are pretty serious leads for Walker and Bush. Of course, one poll can be flawed, but most recent numbers from Pew also show Walker, Bush, and Huckabee at the top of the pack.

Timesy McTimesface (traditional campaign journalist): You know, Rubio’s campaign manager also managed Joni Ernst’s stunning victory in Iowa in 2014. What I’m hearing from unidentified sources within that campaign is that Rubio has a real plan to win in place, and that the energy surrounding both the team and its supporters is phenomenal.

Professor Christmas (political scientist): A lot of prior research shows us that eventually the party is going to decide on the candidate that gives it the best chance to win in 2016.  So you need to be asking, what does the party need to win in 2016?  Outreach to Latinos and other minorities seems crucial. Someone who can attract the undecideds while still rallying the base is also important.  Above all, though, the party is going to want to someone who is careful about what he or she says in public so that we don’t see a repeat of Romney’s “47 percent” comments.

Sherlock (artificial intelligence program): Trump.

Etan Gold: Really, Sherlock? Donald Trump isn’t even listed as an option in the Quinnipiac or Pew Polls, and only 1 percent of Republicans in the Quinnipiac poll reported they were considering voting for a candidate other than those listed in the poll (Bush, Carson, Christie, Cruz, Graham, Huckabee, Jindal, Kasich, Paul, Perry, Rubio, Santorum, Walker).

Timesy McTimesface: I couldn’t agree more.  Trump has no campaign staff to speak of, no political organization and no real track record to show he could manage this sort of effort.

Professor Christmas: Look, Donald Trump is the last person the Republican Party elite would decide on. Seriously! #NeverTrump!

Sherlock (artificial intelligence): Trump.

Etan Gold: Oh – maybe Sherlock thinks we are playing cards? Do you want to pick a suit for trump?

Timesy McTimesface: Or is presidential politics too complicated for your operating system, Sherlock? All systems not a Go?

Sherlock: Trump.

Professor Christmas: Sherlock, do you really think Donald Trump can beat all of these experienced Republican candidates who have had years to interact with party elites? What’s he going to do, Tweet his way to the nomination?

Sherlock: Trumped!

Me: Apparently there’s some sort of bug in the AI system and it’s just stuck on Trump. I don’t quite understand why, but no matter what you feed into it, it seems to just spit out Trump. Sorry about that! Didn’t mean to subject you to all Trump all the time – can you imagine?

Me: So let’s turn to the Democrats – anyone who can give Hillary Clinton a run for her money?

Gold: No.

McTimesface: No.

Professor Christmas: No.

Sherlock: A 75 year-old Jewish socialist from the whitest state in the country.

Me: Whoops!  That thing really is broken.  Well, thanks for your time, and looking forward to seeing how things turn out next year!