Spring 2016

Eric Ostermeier, ’95: Data-driven Political Journalism

By Amy Spooner

Eric Ostermeier, ’95
Eric Ostermeier, ’95

The pen may be mightier than the sword, but in today’s world of pundits and partisanism, Eric Ostermeier, ’95, says data is the most powerful of all.

Since 2006, Ostermeier has authored Smart Politics, a blog he founded at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Smart Politics pioneered the field of data journalism by featuring unbiased, data-driven findings about politics and elections at the national and state levels. It has been cited by personalities as diverse as Rachel Maddow and Rush Limbaugh. 

“In 2006, the political blogosphere was dominated by sites with political bents. Many simply recycled content or attacked others’,” says Ostermeier. “I saw a vacuum around original, data-based research and analysis, so I created a blog where data speaks for itself.”

Ostermeier has logged some 2,500 reports ranging from split-ticket voting in federal elections to how many times President Obama has mentioned terrorism. He is a one-man shop who conceives ideas, conducts research, and writes the results—as many as five reports a week. Many address hardcore issues; others are more offbeat—including a historical review of members of Congress killed on or by trains (23, by the way).

The takeaways from the data are open to interpretation. In 2010, Ostermeier’s Flesch-Kincaid analysis of the grade-level understanding of State of the Union addresses scored President Obama’s among the lowest in U.S. history, which was trumpeted by Republicans and decried by Democrats. Then a 2012 analysis of Ann Romney’s and Michelle Obama’s party convention speeches scored Romney’s at a fifth-grade level and Obama’s at a 12th, and the media script flipped. “I sleep comfortably knowing I handle both sides fairly. I don’t go into a project seeking a particular outcome,” Ostermeier says.

Smart Politics began as part of Ostermeier’s post-doctoral work at the University of Minnesota, where he earned a PhD in political science after graduating from Michigan Law. His unique approach gained traction, and now Ostermeier runs the blog full time. 

An early fan was Meet the Press host Chuck Todd, who called it a high-end way to feed political addiction. While that increased his audience, Ostermeier knew Smart Politics had arrived in 2008 when Tonight Show host Jay Leno cited his post about how incumbent Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman, then in a runoff with challenger Al Franken, altered the religious tone of interviews based on the political leanings of the media outlet. 

“Traffic to the blog crashed the server and within days made it to Hollywood, so I figured I was onto something,” says Ostermeier.

Ostermeier’s knack for studying the previously unstudied stems from Smart Politics’s blend of political science, journalism, and history—a multifaceted lens that he says was fostered by his time at Michigan Law. “I was influenced by the creativity of professors like William Miller, whose Bloodfeuds course showed how critical thinking about institutions need not be bound by a single discipline of study.”

It also helps that Ostermeier is inherently creative. Before becoming a go-to source for data journalism, he was another Generation X kid who started a band, and in 1998 he launched a record label, Words On Music, with his brother. The label reissues albums by post-punk bands the brothers listened to growing up plus new music from noise pop and post-rock artists in the United States and Europe. “I was influenced by labels whose artists created a distinctive atmosphere in which the songs breathed,” says Ostermeier.

Much like he lets the data breathe on Smart Politics. “My approach to writing has been more influenced by the box scores of baseball games or the whimsy of Dr. Seuss than any traditional journalism.”

Politics By the Numbers

Numbers From the Smart Politics blog.


Number of times per minute that Rick Santorum blinked during a 2012 GOP presidential debate


Number of Republican members of Congress who had a U.S. debt clock on their websites, compared to 1 Democrat, in 2013


Number of Rhode Islanders who have run for president (Lincoln Chafee)


Number of Supreme Court justices, out of 111, who were born in the 24 states west of the Mississippi River


Number of U.S. representatives with whom John Dingell served during his 59+ years in office, the longest tenure in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives