At 11:12 p.m., John Lapinski and the other senior election analysts at NBC made the call that Ohio would swing blue — and just like that, the next four years were decided.
Lapinski, a political science professor and the deputy director of elections at NBC, spent Election Day in a “quarantine room” analyzing a blitz of election data with a team of 70 statisticians, pollsters and political scientists.
He had been planning and crunching numbers a year in advance, fine-tuning the models to project the results of the election. In the next couple of months, he will start planning for 2016.
Despite playing such an integral role in NBC’s coverage of the election, Lapinski hadn’t always planned on being involved in politics.
“To be honest, when I was an undergraduate I thought I was going to be a high school teacher,” he said. He ultimately pursued a career as a political scientist, focusing on statistics and quantitative analysis after being encouraged by a professor and getting involved in political initiatives in his home state of Washington.
He became involved with NBC shortly after he finished his doctoral program at Columbia University. “My first job was as an assistant professor at Yale in the Political Science Department there,” he said. “I invited out a couple people to come and speak at a workshop that I created. They gave me some money, and it was essentially a new media and politics workshop. One of those people who came out to visit was Merrill Brown, who was the president of MSNBC on the internet.”
After hitting it off with Brown, the two collaborated on an online polling experiment. “Then, out of nowhere, I got a call from [NBC] to ask me if I’d like to come on as a junior elections analyst” during the 2000 election, Lapinski said.
Joshua Clinton, one of the junior elections analysts at NBC and a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, has worked with Lapinski since his early days at Yale. “[Lapinski is] a really sharp thinker and he’s a very nice person, so it’s fun to work with him,” he said. He also praised Lapinski’s ability to “bring in theories about political science and prior research” to the hard statistical models used on election night.
“He knows all the political science literature, and so he’s able to interpret — go beyond the particular statistical model to know more about the context and content of the races that are being called,” he said.
Lapinski — who is the undergraduate chair of Penn’s Political Science Department — is also making an effort to bridge the gap between the academic study of political science and the applied political science he practices at NBC.
He is in the planning stages of a series of unique courses on elections, particularly focusing on quantitative analysis and technical training. He is planning to offer them next fall.
“It would be a process where we offer courses to train [students] in doing what we need to do in this other world,” he said, adding that he plans on hiring some students to be interns at NBC.
“I love my Penn job and the idea of being able to bring these two worlds together,” Lapinski said.
Annenberg School for Communication Dean Michael Delli Carpini — who has known Lapinski since he was a graduate student and who is collaborating with Lapinski on the new course program — praised Lapinski’s teaching style.
“He is a really, really talented, committed teacher, and he has a great ability to blend what we know from academic research with what we know from real world politics and put them together in a way that is both interesting and informative,” he said.