Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent victory is a reminder that Demographics Matter (just not in the way our pundits often talk about it …)

There were so many hot takes after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her primary in New York’s 14th Congressional District, with political pundits making claims that her victory showed a schism in the Democratic Party, that it showed no schism, that it was a huge victory for Democratic Socialists, that it meant nothing for Socialism, and everything in between. I think it’s also not controversial to say that her win surprised a lot of media in the United States.

To me, her victory was a huge reminder about why demographics matter. Demographics matter in terms of the electorate of New York’s 14th Congressional District. Demographics also matter in terms of the newsrooms and the people staffing them, that cover places like New York’s 14th Congressional District.

Demographics are never, when considered properly, only about race; in all things, properly used Demographics are about statistical analysis of populations and groups within a population. Segmentation is the net result of proper statistical analysis; good data analysis will yield segmentation that’s reasonable and based on available data. So, race or ethnicity would never be the only factor, nor should it. Sex, income, age, background, education level, and so many other factors can help hone in on meaningful truths. From this perspective, Demographics can feel cold and analytical.

To me, though, when I see Demographics, I see people. My training in product management means that if I think about population segments, I never think of numbers alone. I imagine representative people, personas, preferably real people. If there are no real people that you can find or imagine for a segment, then the segment doesn’t exist. You need to be broad-minded, fair, and use your intelligence (social, emotional, intellectual, and more) to bust through any biases you may have, to really see the people there. And the key to a good understanding of Demographics is to know the simple truth that for any given population, Demographics are always in motion. Whatever you think now can change dramatically over a span of time.

I’ve only realized recently that the way I think about this kind of information, and the short hand I use, is different than a lot of other people. In a few casual conversations, I noticed people using Demographics as a way to relate a fairly ugly short-hand. That ugly short-hand is based on a derisive, divisive idea about what ‘identity politics’ means. In the ugly version of ‘Demographics Matter’ the idea is that if you run a candidate of minority status in a Congressional District that matches the ethnic background of the candidate, the candidate will have an ‘assured’ victory. That’s a preposterous idea, and one I haven’t seen backed with any kind of data, beyond anecdotal.

There is, however, a very truthful set of data to consider, that the Brookings Institute covered in the fall of 2016 in “How Demographic Changes Are Transforming U.S. Elections.” In this, they make a point about emerging, engaged voters …

While millennials tend to favor Democrats, particularly in presidential elections, and communities of color vote similarly, the differences among young people of color show that millennials can’t necessarily be counted as a single voting bloc. Additionally, while minority millennials do favor the Democratic presidential candidate by significant margins — a pattern that is true for African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans aged 18–30, a significant number of those polled are considering not voting. This suggests that turnout will be critical if Clinton seeks to capitalize on her support among these voters.

I read polling data in the morning, whenever I can, and have a keen interest in politics. And the thing I found interesting about the New York 14 race was that there seemed to be very little polling data available in the public sphere. I don’t know if either the campaign of Joe Crowley or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ran polls; if they did, the results of their polls weren’t widely shared.

In the absence of this data, a lot of writers used different kinds of data. The story they told would go something like this; Crowley is a 10-term incumbent Congressman, Ocasio-Cortez is part of a wave of younger candidates and women running for office, she was facing an uphill battle. The best that political writers could do, it seemed, were variants on this story, discussed in big picture terms about ‘Democrats Vs. Democratic Socialists’ and other themes. This piece in Vox is well-written and, to me, represents this theme. But the pattern I kept seeing in stories, whenever I would see mention about New York or these big picture trends, were people talking to each other, expressing their ideas or opinions, but not referencing any data beyond their own conversations or voices. Even if a reporter talks to ‘only’ two sources in an area, those two sources represent data points. In addition, those sources represent critical Demographic information.

For me, for the last few months, every story I’d read about New York’s 14th Congressional district told variations of the same story, over and over, but represented a huge information gap. Even the pieces writing the best possible coverage (in terms of richness and intelligence of the writing), didn’t seem to be talking to anyone who lived in the area. There was no polling, so, no theoretically broad-minded quantitative analysis was being done on the public’s behalf by any outlets. And any qualitative analysis was missing the voice of the voters of New York’s 14th Congressional district.

In 2010, the U.S. census showed an overall population density decrease in New York state versus the density of the rest of the nation; consequently, our state lost 2 Congressional districts. The result of this was a massive redistricting of our city, which included transforming some district numbers and changing the borders and boundaries of various areas. The New York Times published a great tool to let people compare new and old districts. What was Joe Crowley’s ‘historic’ 7th District became the new 14th District in 2012. To some people, the districts looked largely identical based on the scant demographic information displayed. Visit the tool and judge for yourself. To me, there’s an interesting story hidden in the data if we compare the 7th and the 14th in 2012.

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The original 7th District before 2012
The new 14th District in 2012

In this new district in 2012, the number of white and Hispanic voters went up, while the number of African-American voters went down. But we’re missing critical information, both in terms of age and income. In addition, these figures were from 2012; six years can be an eternity when it comes to Demographic changes.

One data set available for at least the Bronx from the U.S. Census bureau had some demographic information at least current since 2017. To me, reading between the lines, there’s an implication of a high-percentage of Millennial age voters of a minority status. This data is too broad of a set to draw a scientific conclusion from about New York’s 14th district; we’d need tighter data centered on the real geographic boundaries of that district. But for some reason, there didn’t seem to be any kind of polling of the district happening by media sources. Without that polling, the only way to get information about Demographics, and to gather any kind of data point about what was happening in New York’s 14th district, would be to go the area and talk to people about the primary. Yet, even that didn’t seem to be happening.

It’s as if our media, via some kind of unconscious agreement, decided they had their story. It was an insurgent with little hope against a powerful incumbent that couldn’t be defeated. And while this is the story, and it’s a narrative that’s quickly proving to be true, I can’t find any information that would indicate a basis for drawing that comparison in the first place.

Let’s shift gears to another set of Demographics and look at newsrooms in the United States. NPR and others did stories on trends in the Demographic make-up of newsroom staffs in 2017. Tal Abbady of NPR’s Code Switch wrote “The Modern Newsroom Is Stuck Behind The Gender And Color Line” and noted that a lack of diversity in newsrooms can yield a lack of diversity of thought, opinion, and even of what’s newsworthy to begin with.

VIDA’s numbers show that women of color (and minorities in general) are virtually absent from the political commentary and investigative journalism these magazines provide. Though nearly 20 percent of the country’s population is Hispanic, very few of these publications had a single VIDA respondent self-report as Hispanic.

The implications of this generalized absence are manifold, and begin at the storytelling level.

Writer Andrea González-Ramírez of Refinery 29 made the same point directly, and succinctly, on Twitter on June 27, 2018, the day after Ocasio-Cortez victory.

In her profile about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, González-Ramírez noted this telling quote from Ocasio-Cortez …

“While it’s not that nothing has happened in the Bronx, it feels that we are dealing with the same problems 20 years later,” she said. “I’m an organizer here and I know no one ever sees him, he doesn’t have a presence in this community. It would be different if he was around.” — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

This is one of the few stories that has any kind of indication of polling information of any kind. In this one paragraph, an aware, politically active and engaged community organizer who is a woman of color of Millennial age, tells us that in her anecdotal polling, no one seemed to feel the presence of Congressman Joe Crowley, and that the feeling she and others had were that the problems of the Bronx hadn’t changed.

This is, literally, one of the few data points about polling indicated in any stories. It’s one of the few pieces of demographic information that anyone has. Andrea González-Ramírez took that information seriously. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, encouraged by her friends, also took that information seriously. There’s nothing, to me, that would say that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is dishonest. She’s highly educated at Boston University. To me, this is all indications that her opinion is intelligent, reasonable, and could demonstrate interesting statistical information.

And it seems like no one, save for a handful of people with similar Demographic profiles, took that information seriously.

Through hard work, talking to people, continuing (using our parlance) to poll voters one by one through New York’s 14th district, Ocasio-Cortez learned, connected, and grew with her constituents. And Joe Crowley, meanwhile, had so little presence in the district that he sent a surrogate to debate with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. People on the ground noticed. Despite not writing a profile of her, even the New York Time’s noticed Crowley’s lack of attendance, and wrote an editorial on the subject.

This is the second primary debate in which Mr. Crowley was a no-show. A spokeswoman for Mr. Crowley said he had scheduling conflicts that wouldn’t allow him to attend the two debates, inevitably leaving voters to wonder — what are we, chopped liver?

Indeed, the snubs should be galling not only to Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and Mr. Crowley’s constituents in New York’s 14th Congressional District, in Queens and the Bronx, but also to anyone who cares about the democratic process.

The piece was more of an admonition of Crowley than a recognition of the viability of Ocasio-Cortez’s candidacy, but even there, it ended with this recognition of the situation …

(Crowley had) better hope that voters don’t react to his snubs by sending someone else to do the job.

… albeit a recognition that subtly undercuts the work that Ocasio-Cortez had been doing for years to get to know her constituents by pounding the pavement and talking to as many people as she could.

So, let’s summarize a few key pieces of information …

  1. Younger people of color may not vote for a straight Democratic candidate but enough turn-out-the-vote effort can encourage voting
  2. The Demographics of the new district, New York 14, changed from the old district New York 7
  3. There was little quantitative polling information for New York 14 available from media sources in the present
  4. Newsrooms lack Demographic diversity, favoring wealthier, white men
  5. Women of color noticed the candidacy of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
  6. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was performing regular qualitative analysis of New York’s 14th district by talking to constituents
  7. Ocasio-Cortez noticed that Crowley had little presence in the community
  8. Writer Andrea González-Ramírez of Refinery 2 noticed the signifigance of this detail and included the quote in her story

Anecdotally, younger people I know from the area were making the same point to me. It wasn’t just that Ocasio-Cortez was exciting, she was present, she was from the area, and she was connecting with people. I tend to only personally pay attention to my own district (as of 2012, I live in New York’s 12th district).

It’s easy to put this story together in hindsight, because after a win, you know where to look. And if the take away you have from this is that Ocasio-Cortez’s win was a ‘Demographic Inevitability’ then I’ve failed to communicate clearly. On the contrary, there is very rarely, if ever, such a thing as ‘Demographic Inevitability.’ There’s only opportunity, which is one of the purposes of doing demographic analysis. Ocasio-Cortez did significant work to see, recognize, and work hard to seek the opportunity she saw. She needed convincing from friends and supporters, but once she was convinced, she went for it with gusto, intelligence, and heart. She worked hard, and she won.

Demographics matter, because when used right, they represent the feelings, potential, and shape of real people. It’s why the Demographic make-up of newsrooms matter; a lack of diversity of people results in a lack of diversity of thinking, and opinions. When you have diversity of people in newsrooms, you gain insight into diversity of people in communities everywhere.

Demographics matter. All media would do well to heed the advice of Andrea González-Ramírez. And any person seeking political office would do well to heed the example of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. If you can’t do expensive quantitative polling to draw statistical information from the area in which you want to run, talk to as many people as you can and draw your best conclusions from your qualitative analysis.

If you do your job well, you may help a smart political writer suss out the reality of a situation in your area, as Ocasio-Cortez did for González-Ramírez.

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez raising money to travel to Standing Rock in 2016 on GoFundMe. I’m not sure who the other person is, but they both seem like nice kids. Granted, at my age, everyone younger than me looks like a kid now.

Or, as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put it herself, “Our identities, whether we like it or not, are a lens. We can never take that lens off. And the whole point of Congress is that when we have multiple lenses together, we can … achieve effective legislation that champions all of us.”

Diversity of people yield diversity of opinion, and smarter outcomes, because demographics matter.

When we lack diversity, we end up with blindspots. And in the case of political media, without diversity of demographics in newsrooms, certain stories will only become obvious in hindsight.

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