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The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The Survey Leader for Barack Obama’s Campaign Still Helping Progressive Politicians

We canvassed the world of the social and behavioral sciences, looking for rising stars whose careers promise to make a lasting mark. We'll be profiling the top 30 throughout the month of April.


(Illustration: Graham Smith)

(Illustration: Graham Smith)

When Erin Hartman was a freshman at Caltech, she declared her major as chemical engineering. As an elective, she enrolled in an American politics class whose professor, Mike Alvarez, took his students poll-watching during a local election. “He drove us around Pasadena all day, showing us democracy in action,” Hartman says.

This was after Florida’s butterfly-ballot debacle, and Los Angeles was using InkaVote, in which voters ink up their ballots using markers. As Hartman walked up to the first polling location, a voter asked: "Are you the folks from Caltech? Well, I have to tell you, they are telling us who to vote for."

Upon investigation, Hartman and Alvarez learned that voters were accidentally marking the voting machines rather than their ballots, confusing later voters. How individual precincts were dealing with this was very inconsistent.

“I was hooked,” Hartman says. “Seeing voters' diverse experiences in the voting booth made me want to better understand how voting technologies mattered for the democratic system. I began doing independent research with Alvarez, who encouraged me to go to graduate school in political science.”

"At any juncture where I encountered a job opportunity that seemed challenging and exciting, even if I didn’t meet all the bullets on the job description, I hopped in the car and started a new journey. I knew I’d figure it out on the way."

That led Hartman to the University of California-Berkeley, where her research interests evolved away from voting technologies.

“Because the primary focus of political science has shifted from being a field centered on answering big philosophical questions about political theory to answering real-world questions in a data-driven way,” Hartman says, “there is a greater need for sophisticated statistical methods.”

So Hartman created new survey methodologies that are extraordinarily accurate at letting pollsters measure public opinion. “Trying to quantify anything when your data have free will,” she says, “is a fun challenge.”

Hartman is from Austin, Texas. “I grew up in a place where the sky was the limit, and being creative and resourceful was definitely encouraged,” she says. “The most influential part, though, was my family. My parents are both grounded, driven individuals who encouraged me and my sister to follow our passions.” (Her sister is a Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering at the University of Texas-Austin.)

Her mother, a flight paramedic, always told her: “Try to say ‘yes,’ and reserve ‘no’ for when you truly cannot,” says Hartman, who heeded that advice faithfully, which has led her back and forth across the country and all around the world.

“At any juncture where I encountered a job opportunity that seemed challenging and exciting, even if I didn’t meet all the bullets on the job description, I hopped in the car and started a new journey. I knew I’d figure it out on the way,” Hartman says. “This has allowed me to build a polling operation having never run a poll, start a successful analytics firm from the ground up, and make the leap back into academia.”

To back up a bit: Hartman, with no prior polling experience, was hired as the chief survey methodologist for the analytics department of Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. Within nine months, she’d built one of the largest polling operations of that election cycle—one that accurately predicted how the election would turn out.

“It was my background in statistical design,” she says, “and lack of strong prior beliefs on how to properly conduct surveys that allowed me to completely revamp the polling process from the ground up.”

Hartman loves working at the intersection of social science and statistics. “I’m a problem solver,” she says. “The study of causal inference—did X cause Y, by how much, and how certain are we—really satisfies that part of my personality. However, I like to know that the tools and methods I am creating can help solve real-world, high-impact problems.”

After helping Obama get re-elected, Hartman co-founded a company, BlueLabs, that uses data and technology to help progressive politicians, including Cory Booker and Terry McAuliffe, run campaigns in ways that are on beat with the public pulse. She leads its statistical research and polling divisions, developing new and mathematical ways to help political candidates, non-profits, and do-gooder companies make smart decisions.

“Many polls are conducted using outdated methodologies,” she says. “I want to see organizations use my modernized methods to help ensure that we have accurate measures of public opinion. This is essential for knowing that government is responsive to the needs and preferences of its citizens.”

In her free time, Hartman rock climbs. “It’s just another way to solve puzzles,” she says, “except now you are part of the puzzle, and you are on the side of a cliff, which adds a little bit of excitement.”

Next up for Hartman: a return to academia. First there will be postdoctoral work at Princeton, then, in fall 2016, a tenure-track professorship at the University of California-Los Angeles, where she’ll be working in the statistics and political science departments. She’s looking forward to being able to focus on developing statistical methods, and also to helping train the next generation of analytically minded political scientists.

Does Hartman have advice for them? “Three things,” she says. “One, work on campaigns while you’re young—they are exhilarating but extremely exhausting. Two, don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo. The field is growing and needs fresh perspectives to help it adapt to new technologies. And three, pay attention in statistics class.”

We’ll be publishing profiles of this year’s list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of April. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we make it our mission to cover every day at Pacific Standard.

A version of this year’s list is also available to subscribers as a feature in our May/June print issue. For more from Pacific Standard on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our email newsletter and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8), Amazon, and Google Play (Android).