By DARA KAM
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
In a new twist on man vs. machine, more than a dozen Florida campaign whizzes are matching wits against a computer program, taking shots at predicting the outcome of state legislative races for charity.
Tallahassee lobbyist and Republican consultant Brecht Heuchan hand-picked a bipartisan crew to play what he’s dubbed “DecisionLink 2014 Man vs. Machine.” Participants get two “ballots” — an early guess and one closer to the election — and a point for each correct selection.
The winner’s bounty will go toward a charity chosen by one of the 16 consultants who plunked down $100 to participate in the contest against DecisionLink, a program that’s the brainchild of Heuchan. He is matching the participants’ entry fees, meaning a $3,200 pay-off for the winners’ charity.
Starting this week, Heuchan is letting the public in on the picks. He wants Capitol insiders, social scientists and campaign staff to cast their votes — for free — in House and Senate races. Heuchan plans to get corporate sponsors to bankroll the public ballots, which will cost $1 each to underwrite. Anyone who thinks they’re savvy enough to beat Heuchan’s complicated computer algorithm — or the campaign gurus — can enter the contest at https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/ManvsMachine.
So far, Miami-based lobbyist and consultant David Custin has proved himself to be the cream of the crème de la crème — thanks to a Jacksonville Republican House race won by two votes. Custin edged out Marc Reichelderfer, who was consulting for the losing House District 15 candidate’s campaign, by a single point.
The grand winner will be selected based on results from the primary and the general-election races, and since DecisionLink will only come into play after the November election, there’s no way the computer can be the ultimate winner.
But raging against the machine — and each other — has spiked the competitiveness in an already shark-like bunch.
Steve Vancore, a Democratic consultant and pollster who landed in third place after the primary, called the challenge a “John Henry kind of moment” for the political elite.
“Sure I’m competing against a machine,” Vancore said. “But we’re all competitive. So you have 16 John Henrys competing, against the machine but they’re all looking down the aisle to see how the other guy’s doing. And it’s a lot of fun.”
Heuchan dreamed up the experiment in part as a way to promote and test DecisionLink, which had a 94 percent accuracy rate in predicting winners but which, until now, Heuchan had only used to analyze races after elections were already completed.
“I wanted to make the model compete against some of the state’s best political consultants and the public to see how it would stack up, but the game had to have a better, higher purpose than just a bunch of numbers and predictions,” he said.
Heuchan’s DecisionLink uses a formula based on a variety of characteristics — such as the amount of money a candidate has raised, party affiliation, a district’s past performance and voter registration — to predict the percentage that a candidate will win a race.
Computers, software and data are now essential tools for winning campaigns. But the human factor can’t be discounted, the consultants agreed.
“I don’t think a machine will be able to handle everything from A to Z unless they create a Data, like from Star Trek,” said Custin, who’s picked Kristi House, which provides services for sexually abused children, as his charity. “At that point, I’ll stick to lobbying instead of campaigns.”
DecisionLink can’t pick up nuances in a race that can lead to upsets, Reichelderfer said.
“It’s very easy for any one of us to make decisions like a computer regarding cash on hand, party registration in the district, to look at the data and predict a pretty high percentage of victory just based on the data. But a human has the intangibles. The relationships in the district, what team leaders are supporting particular candidates in certain areas, and what local issues are driving turnout. All of those are going to factor into the equation,” said Reichelderfer, whose charity is Tree House Tallahassee.
Regardless of the outcome, the game has injected an aura of amity for participants during what can be a blistering campaign season.
“This is absolutely needed. Politicians rip each others’ faces off all the time but the fact is we all have a bit of a camaraderie,” said Vancore, whose win could create more competition in future Man vs. Machine contests. He’s picked Florida State University’s Masters in Applied American Political and Policy student scholarships as his charity. “There’s a lot of mutual respect across party lines in this group. That’s an unexpected bonus.”
Democratic consultant Steve Schale, who’s playing for the Epilepsy Foundation of Florida, said he wound up near the bottom of the pack after the primary.
“I had a couple of races where I was thinking with my heart and not with my brain. So I’m going to have be more careful in the general election,” Schale said.
Schale pointed out that he cut his teeth in the political world in the late 1990s, long before the data-driven focus of current campaigns.
“Politics for a long time was a lot more art than it was science. These days it’s a lot more science than it is art. For some of us old guys, it’s a difficult transition at times,” he said.