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NBC's Chuck Todd: Big data has fueled political polarization

Big data has been a big help to industry, but has it hurt democracy?

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NBC's Chuck Todd: Big data has fueled political polarization

Mike Snider , USA TODAY Published 11:12 a.m. ET March 15, 2017 | Updated 1:55 p.m. ET March 15, 2017 216 Shares facebook sharetwitter shareemail shareemail share

AUSTIN, Tex. -- Big data has been a boon to many businesses, but could be exacting a toll on the U.S. political climate by fueling polarization.

That's the case made by Chuck Todd, NBC News' political director and moderator of Meet the Press, here Tuesday at the South By Southwest Festival.

Political campaigns have become so tech-savvy they can target the exact voters they need for victory, often eschewing debates over critical issues -- and ignoring some voters. And redistricting, with the use of finely-tuned data sets, protects incumbent legislators and fosters continued polarization. "We are sending lawmakers to Congress who don't have any incentive to compromise," Todd said.

And voters are being forced to "pick a side," he said. "We are eliminating nuance altogether."

That has led voters to increasingly think that the other party's policies threaten the nation, according to Pew Research Center findings Todd cited. In 2014, 37% of Republicans and 31% of Democrats thought so. Two years later, the percentages grew to 45% and 41%, respectively. (NBCNews.com has an in-depth treatment of Todd's presentation with interactive graphics.)

"We are losing the national identity that we all have because of polarization," he said.

"The question is, is it a chicken and the egg thing?" Todd said. "Are we polarized because we want to be polarized or has the system polarized us?"

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Big data does make it easier to target voters with TV ads, said Sara Fagen, a GOP strategist and former White House political director for George W. Bush "If you are looking at targeting independent women you know are motivated or concerned about perhaps the Republican's view of abortion, you run that ad because you are really targeting to a very select voter," she said.

But big data alone is not to blame for polarization, said Cornell Belcher, who helped design the Democrat's 50-state strategy in 2005 and author of A Black Man In The White House: Barack Obama and the Triggering of America's Racial-Aversion Crisis. Economic changes, especially in rural America, and other demographic changes contribute to "a shrinking persuadable electorate," he said.

Redistricting reform could be done with the help of big data, but that would require a massive compromise of allowing technology to redraw district lines more equitably, the panel agreed. It has to happen, Fagen said, "most importantly, to get a higher quality of person to run for office."

The problem with computerized redistricting? "It's not going to be politically popular and nobody in power is going to be OK with giving over that control," she said, "but that would be a highly efficient way to do it."

As state legislatures begin to consider 2021 redistricting process, Todd wants to encourage amateur statisticians to create their own sample redistricted maps to show it can be done fairly. "I want to see every single state legislature flooded with maps," he said.

Beyond technology, the political discourse must pull back from partisanship and tackle bigger problems, such as global competition, Belcher said. "Not the black vs. the white or the blue collar vs. the white collar," he said.

But there's the fact that "we are a reality television nation," Belcher said, "so some of it does go back to us."

"I have seen the problem and it is me," Todd joked.

Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.

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