What Jewish Organizations Can Learn About Data from President-Elect Trump

Jewish nonprofits can learn two major lessons about Donald Trumps electoral success: one about outreach, and another about the context of our data.


By Dan Hazony

The 2016 Presidential Election will serve as a watershed moment in U.S. political history. It will be remembered as one of the most contested primary campaigns in presidential history, with the winner being a virtual political outsider who was able to defeat a former US Senator and Secretary of State, who also happened to be the first female candidate and the wife of a former president. Most importantly, however, is that it was completely unexpected in most of the halls of power around the world, across all political parties.

This election ended up being the largest modern failure of data. As late as the afternoon of Election Day, The New York Times was predicting that Hillary Clinton would have an 85 percent chance of winning the election, which meant losing is the “same as an N.F.L. kicker missing a 37-yard field goal.” There was a week-long stretch the week after the final presidential debate that saw her remaining steady at 93-percent, with no prediction since June below 58 percent. On election day, they cited that a win of 322 electoral votes for Mrs. Clinton was the most likely outcome, 94-points off from the actual results. Even Fox News, whose allegiance as a network is to the Republican party, predicted that Hillary Clinton would win with 274 electoral votes one day before the election.

Every statistician and pollster will tell you that these predictions are built off of many polls and thrown into a predictive model to help the professionals understand the probabilities involved. It’s not perfect, and if the Republican primary taught us anything, it’s that the unlikely can still happen.

So how are we, Jewish communal professionals, who are pressured to become increasingly dependent on data to help guide our decisions, supposed to reconcile this reality and still trust our data when none of the many professionals dedicated to the electoral models predicted anywhere near this outcome?

Donald Trump in his ascent kept reminding us that he was representing a side of America that our media outlets and analysts do not usually see, because they do not fall into the “likely voter” camp. What the next several days will probably determine is that those unlikelies were intrigued by Trump’s unique message. He found an untapped market of voters that most other presidential campaigns have given up on historically, and mobilized them with limited overhead to go out and vote, many probably for the first time while his campaign incurred minimal costs. At the same time, the Clinton campaign probably took for granted votes from specific camps that in hindsight could have used courting. It could be that those voters in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida stayed home because they were watching the news and interpreted the insights from the predictive models to mean that the election is “in the bag” and their vote did not really matter.

Jewish nonprofits can learn two major lessons about Donald Trump’s electoral success: one about outreach, and another about the context of our data.

Since the early days of the campaign, media outlets were focusing on the size and scope of Trump’s political apparatus. Always smaller than Hillary Clinton’s operation, the analysts were using the size of a political campaign as a proxy of influence and reach. But what Trump did was he built a brand around “Make America Great Again,” bought a lot of hats, and put them on the heads of people whom he drew using his not traditionally presidential rhetoric. The news covered him for free because his tactics and his speeches were so anomalous to the general political methods that it seemed to be pulled out of a reality TV show, not a race to become the most powerful political figure in the world.

Very often Jewish organizations use similar metrics – volunteers, participants, field offices – as a means to demonstrate impact. While this might be appealing for marketing purposes, leaders need to make sure that this does not replace meaningful conversations internally about what those numbers really mean. Just because someone showed up, were they engaged in a significant enough manner that it would instill change in their Jewish engagement, identity or knowledge?

Historically, the Jewish community had major causes that sold themselves and brought the community together, which subsequently translated into further involvement in communal activities. The past century alone saw the birth of the State of Israel, the Six Day War, the U.S. civil rights movement, and the plight of Soviet and Ethiopian Jewry as unifying and bonding moments. More recently, Birthright Israel also bonded the community together around the idea of a free Israel experience for every Jew. Those were our “Make America Great Again” moments, and the forever challenge for Jewish nonprofit professionals is how to recreate this level of engagement in the absence of a peoplehood crisis.

Right now, our outreach is awaiting a Donald Trump opportunity in which we can bring those unengaged or under-engaged Jews back into our programming. This is not to suggest that Jewish organizations should build a cult of personality similar to that of the Trump campaign, especially not one built around vulgar comments and actions. Rather a parallel can be drawn to the idea of championing a unified cause, our cause being Jewish community, peoplehood, and education. The type of engagement may look different than what we are currently used to, but how do we make it so that they wear their hats with pride the same way that Trump’s supporters did? I don’t have the answer, but I think it’s an important question to ask, because if we don’t, we will all be recruiting the same participants from the same lists of people who are the people who regularly opt-in to engage with our current institutions and personalities. In the meantime, there are people who identify themselves as Jewish, but are completely unaware and/or unengaged.

This transitions into the question of the context of data, mentioned earlier. Where do the numbers that we analyze come from, and do they really tell the full story? When we do sit down at staff meetings and with lay leadership, how do we make sure that we put our data into full context? Sure, our numbers could have grown by 200 percent, but I do not think that most of the conversations talking about growth involve the stories of our potential market. Communal studies and projects like the Pew Report are important and definitely help in that vein, but they are often outdated very soon after their release. Even so, do we actively use that data either in day-to-day management or in strategic planning? Nonprofits as a whole need to become better at taking a step back more often and asking what the data is really saying.

To quote one of my favorite political operatives, Josh Lyman of the West Wing (a highly recommended TV show), when asked about unlikely voters: “Why are we encouraging a group of people who … can’t bring themselves to raise their hands? Why is it important that they be brought into the process?” Mr. Lyman’s representation here is a perfect demonstration of the political apparatus’ general attitude towards the unengaged voting bloc, and frequently its our Jewish community’s attitude as well.

Our democracy is supposed to safeguard and celebrate the rights of each citizen to actually voice their opinion, and make sure that they are heard. Somehow, for reasons still yet to be clearly defined, the political system miscalculated the attitudes of our population. We need to make sure that as a Jewish community, we do not miscalculate whom our population is and what they believe. Unlike an election cycle, our constituents will no longer easily hear about their Jewish community once they leave, and we want to make sure that we are able to include them in our community.

Dan Hazony is the Director of Data and Evaluation at NCSY, the international youth movement of the Orthodox Union. He loves talking about data in Jewish nonprofits and can be reached at dan@ncsy.org