With his fusty corduroy blazer, diffident mien and unpolished website, Andy Tow, an anonymous civil servant with a flair for data crunching, is emerging as an unlikely rock star of Argentina’s election season.
Mr. Tow, 45, spends his days assisting a congressman, often performing mundane tasks like answering phones or booking flights. But in the evenings, he morphs into a prodigious statistician who tells the complicated stories of domestic politics by turning raw data into online graphics. This rare pursuit has been winning Mr. Tow influence — and some ire — among scholars, pundits and, now, even voters.
“It’s an addiction; I do it all for artistic love,” he said over lunch at a coffee shop opposite the congressional palace here. “It used to be more underground. I never gave it much publicity. I’m just mad about computing and numbers.”
As Argentines muse on a tight race for the presidency before they go to the polls for a runoff election on Sunday, Mr. Tow’s passions and, more recently, his Twitter account are catapulting him beyond his usual niche audience to a wider public.
“I like the way he uses scientific criteria to analyze the progress of the election race,” said Lisardo Versellino, 56, an administrative worker who discovered Mr. Tow on Twitter. “It contrasts with the mainstream news media, which trivializes and simplifies the dispute for power.”
Many Argentines are now turning to Mr. Tow and his digital mapsdemonstrating voting trends for help deciphering the political landscape. Peers have described his work as “titanic,” and fan mail litters his inbox.
“It’s like he’s clearing a path through the election season’s din of opinions,” said Jimena Cufré, 23, a university student who first learned of Mr. Tow when she saw him on television.
Mr. Tow’s rise to prominence reflects paradigm shifts over recent years in political science and other fields, like business, where demand has boomed for the harnessing of computers’ growing sophistication to pick out trends from abundant data.
In Argentina, however, political scientists have lagged in this respect. There is a preference among scholars here for philosophical discussion, according to Ernesto F. Calvo, an Argentine politics professor at the University of Maryland.
“There’s an enormous deficit of systematic statistical analysis in Argentina,” Mr. Calvo said. “He’s the only one filling the gap.”
This recognition is a long way from the prolonged lull Mr. Tow experienced about 13 years ago when he was sent to work assisting an idle congressional committee that investigated cash outflows from Argentina.
“I spent many hours alone in the office waiting for something to happen,” he said. “I wasn’t going to waste my time or watch pornography when I could be doing something useful.”
By 2008, Mr. Tow said, a map he produced, which depicted patterns of road blockades by farmers protesting moves to raise taxes, was being cited by the local news media. He would later help build a popular websiterevealing how Argentina’s federal lawmakers have voted on various issues. Mr. Tow also worked for more than a decade unraveling and visualizing voting data as he compiled a so-called electoral atlas — but it received only muted applause.
These days, Mr. Tow has no trouble attracting attention to his work. His graphics have become so highly regarded this election season that when he restricted access to his website’s archive this year, he received 4,000 emails requesting the password. And a political news website recently paid him more than $2,000 to syndicate his charts and maps.
The dynamics of the presidential election campaign, including PresidentCristina Fernández de Kirchner’s stepping down because of term limits and the opposition’s momentum, have also fueled wide interest in his work.
His success has come even as statisticians here have been stymied by faulty official data, especially unreliable economic data like inflation measures for which Argentina was scolded by the International Monetary Fund, and unavailable poverty estimates.
This month, Mr. Tow started an election simulator, which allows Argentines to permute the distribution of the more than seven million swing votes that Daniel Scioli, the candidate for Mrs. Kirchner’s governing party, or Mauricio Macri, who is leading the opposition, must win in the runoff.
Some users of the simulator have found it captivating enough that one popular pundit, Juan Pablo Varsky, equated it to an addictive drug. It even spawned spin-off versions.
Like many other posts on Mr. Tow’s website, the idea came to him while he was loafing about at home.
“I created the simulator because I was bored on Saturday night,” said Mr. Tow, a politics graduate and self-taught computer programmer.
He said he was inspired by a similar tool that was popular during France’srunoff election in 2012. “I remembered that and thought, ‘Why don’t we try one now?’ ” he said.
But it was a poll aggregator, called La Borra, that thrust Mr. Tow into the spotlight. He started it as Argentines obsessively debated whether Mr. Scioli would beat Mr. Macri by a large enough margin in a first round of elections, held last month, to avoid the runoff.
Mr. Tow, whose full first name is Andrés, collated the results of more than 20 pollsters, regularly updating La Borra as new polls were released. The aggregator quickly became popular among politics buffs and economists.
In the past, Mr. Tow, a timid man, had relished calculating algorithms and researching mapping systems from the obscurity of his living room, accompanied by his cat.
When he did promote his work, it was among a devoted following of bloggers or at local meetings of data journalists and computer programmers.
However, public acclaim gradually seduced Mr. Tow. Soon enough, he wasappearing more frequently on television and radio programs.
“Unmasking the data is the thing that drives me,” Mr. Tow said.
“But there’s also a little bit of going after glory, prestige, fame and popular approval.”
The pinnacle came last month when Horacio Verbitsky, one of Argentina’s most influential journalists, gave lengthy mention of Mr. Tow and La Borra in a newspaper column, praising his work as “meticulous.”
But Mr. Tow’s fast rise left him susceptible to a precipitous fall. And his poll aggregator, La Borra, fell hard. It had suggested a first-round victory for Mr. Scioli, but Mr. Macri upended predictions by taking the election to a runoff.
Political commentators had placed so much emphasis on La Borra that when it failed, Mr. Tow faced a barrage of abuse.
“I had a very rough time,” Mr. Tow said. “There were lots of accusations that I was a fraud.”
Mr. Tow said that Argentines misunderstood La Borra, and that it had, in fact, been successful in highlighting the perils of being shepherded by polls, especially after they proved misguided in other elections this year in Britain, Israel and Greece.
He pointed to the tool’s name, a Spanish term for “dregs,” which he chose after dining at an Armenian restaurant here. Traditionally, the thick dregs of a post-meal Arabic coffee would be interpreted to offer clues about the future.
“I thought, ‘This can’t be used to predict anything with precision,’ ” he said, referring to the poll aggregator. “ ‘It should be read like coffee dregs.’ I didn’t want people to clutch at it.”
Despite the heavy criticism, Mr. Tow’s work is still followed closely, and he received a grant to build an application based on La Borra for the region.
His efforts have gotten heightened attention in the final stretch of the campaign, but he has played down perceptions that he is fast becoming the premier statistician of Argentine politics.
“All the information is public,” Mr. Tow said.
“The only thing I do is gather the pieces and assemble the jigsaw.”