Obama Campaign Lies with Bad Math

Mar 07 2012 Published by under Bad Math, politics, Politics

This post is a bit of a change of pace for me.

As you all know, when it comes to politics, I'm a hardcore lefty liberal type. And lots of annoying people like to claim that the reason I write more critical posts about right-wing politicians than left-wing ones is because I'm hopelessly biased. I definitely do end up writing more posts critical of RW than LW politicians, but I believe that that's because in modern day america, the right wing has completely lost touch with reality. They're just far more likely to regurgitate long-disproven lies, or to use specious, unsupportable, or just plain pig-ignorant reasoning.

But a reader sent me a copy of a recent fund-raising letter from the Obama campaign, and it's pissed me right off. I probably actually received a copy of it myself, but I've got my spam filters set to throw away anything from the Obama campaign, so I didn't see it until it was pointed out to me.

When it comes to bad math, in my opinion, there are two main kinds. There's ignorant bad math, and there's dishonest bad math. In the former, the people pushing it don't understand what they're talking about. They're saying something that they actually believe. It's hopelessly wrong, and if they made any effort to learn something about what they're babbling about, they'd see how wrong they are. In the latter kind, the people pushing it are deliberately trying to deceive their readers/listeners. They know that they're doing something wrong, and they're hoping that you are stupid enough to not catch on.

The latter kind of bad math is far worse than the former.

And this Obama campaign fundraising letter is very firmly in the latter camp.

I'm not going to post the entire thing, and I'm not going to provide a link. That would be giving them publicity for this despicable, dishonest effort, which is exactly what they want, and I will not reward them for this.

The letter starts by complaining about a Romney campaign fundraiser, saying:

It may not take the Romney camp very long to get to a million -- they announced today that just 9 percent of their money comes from donors giving less than $200.

Take note of the fundamental point there. Of the money collected, 9% came from small donors.

Then they attempt to contrast themselves against Romney:

Our campaign is different. It's about bringing people together to protect the progress we've made and make a lot more in a second term. And 98 percent of the donations people like you make to this campaign are $250 or less.

The main point: of the people donating, 98% were small donors.

You're supposed to look at that, and say "90% of the donors to Romney are big-money people, but just 2% of the donors to Obama are."

But they're not comparing the same thing. One is a percentage of money, and the other is a percentage of people. Let's take a quick look at an example, to show how this works.

Suppose we've got just ten donors. They gave 200, 200, 200, 100, 100, 100, 50, 50, 50, and 1,000,000 dollars, respectively. Obviously, 90% (9 out of 10) donors gave $200 or less. And if you work it out, more than 99% of the money came from donations of $1,000,000 or more.

What does the Obama campaigns actual donor distribution look like? I don't know. But I'd guess that it's actually pretty similar to the Romney campaign. Politics in America is, very much, a rich persons sport. Both campaigns are absolutely relying on huge donations from people with lots and lots of money. The Obama campaign wants to trick us into believing that they're different. But all they're doing is proving that they're not. They're lying to us, and hoping that we're too stupid to notice.

(There's another level of dishonesty there, but it's far more trivial. In the Romney campaign figure, they talk about the percentage of donotions smaller than $200; for the Obama campaign figure, they use $250. Why? Probably because they wanted a number for the Romney campaign where they could say that more than 90% came from big donors. And hell, once they were lying, what's another lie?)

16 responses so far

  • Jason Dick says:

    Actually, turns out there is a pretty big difference. See here:
    http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/02/obama-trumps-romney-with-small-donors/

    But yeah, really bad form using dishonest tactics to inflate numbers that don't need to be inflated.

  • Sibylla says:

    It's worse than that. They aren't even saying that 98% of the donors were small donors.

    "And 98 percent of the donations people like you make to this campaign are $250 or less. "

    Depending on the definition of "people like you", any number of donors could be excluded from the calculation. Suppose, for example, that "people like you" are people who aren't really rich...

  • Josh Veazey says:

    Could you post the letter in its entirety? I am sure it is still a misleading juxtaposition of statistics, but putting the two statements in question together like this probably amplifies the severity.

    This is not that unusual for politics--it is almost not unethical these days. It still rubs me the wrong way, though.

    Why don't they just say that as a percentage of the campaign's finances, Obama takes in nearly six times as much from small individual donors as Mitt Romney?

    That is still quite impressive, and it is honest.

    • MarkCC says:

      As I said, I don't want to reward this kind of stuff. If you do a google search for either of the two quotes I embedded, you'll see the original. And the lie really is that stark.

      Personally, the fact that they chose to lie this way is the real point. The idea that "they didn't have to lie" bugs me, because you never have to lie. It's not like if the donor proportions were the same, they'd have to lie - they don't need to advertise/solicit this way. There are plenty of other arguments for why people with the political leanings to support Obama could be motivated to donate without resorting to lies.

  • The cap for direct donations to a campaign is $2300 (though you can give twice, once in the primary, and once in the general election). So, while I agree they're comparing apples and oranges, there probably is a legitimate point in there (though it wouldn't sound as good).

  • I know right? They should just give us the histograms... (lol)

    These people know what works. The real outrage is that such a small percentage of the voting public are mathematically literate enough to spot it.

  • Tod says:

    "They're just far more likely to regurgitate long-disproven lies, or to use specious, unsupportable, or just plain pig-ignorant reasoning."

    Your pronoun reference here is incorrect. "They" should be referring to the entire political establishment - not a subset.

  • Did you look at the link that Jason Dick posted? Interestingly, it also gives the percentages the same way, but for the opposite campaigns. It is apparently the case that although the choices of stats may have been bad, the overall impression was still correct. The distribution of small and large donors is not the same for the two candidates. Obama has a larger percentage of the his cash come from small donors and a larger percentage of donors themselves are small donors.

    In the grand scheme of things, I think that this is only a minor transgression. It is cherry-picking the stats for what is essentially marketing literature. In many industries the math is so awful that it doesn't even make sense. At least in this case the statements were factual.

    • rork says:

      I think it's ugly, and trying to be deceptive, but agree with Brian that the statements seem factual. I wouldn't call that lying. All half-way good readers should see it as despicable though, and I commend denouncing it. Reporters do it allot too. Rather than telling reader what they want to know, they tell you only the little part they want you to know.

  • Besomyka says:

    This strikes me a pretty average deceptive politicking. It doesn't look like they lied, but they put it in such a way that it's clear that they wanted to create a misapprehension (as you clearly articulate). They want the reader to conflate the two so as to make the core thing they want to say that much more impressive.

    But that's a bit different than Romney saying in his speech last night that Obama was at fault for the USA's downgraded credit rating. That isn't just misleading, but factual wrong. Intentionally, factually wrong. There's no way for an intelligent reader to find some truth to it, unlike the Obama mailing.

    So deceptive politics? Oh, yeah. Am I upset that the campaign has done that? Yeah. But is it as bad as what's going on on the right? No. Sadly, what the Obama campaign is doing is quite a bit more traditional rhetorical deception.

  • James Sweet says:

    As others have pointed out, the distribution of donors is in fact quite different. In fact, it's almost always the case that Democratic candidates rely relatively more on small donors than their Republican counterparts.

    Obviously none of that changes the bad math or the intentional deception. But you are wrong to assume the two campaigns' donor breakdown is comparable.

  • [...] at Good Math Bad Math once again shows how politicians use general innumeracy to get away with lying. When it comes to bad math, in my opinion, there are two main kinds. There’s ignorant bad [...]

  • Shadonis says:

    I think it's just politics. It sucks, but you need to be rich, and you need to be able to flip dishonesty in the right way. Most Presidential candidates are like this. Otherwise, you lose. Winning political games isn't about providing truth. Truth is a bitter pill for most people to swallow. They want panaceas, simple solutions, and white knights.

  • Hank Roberts says:

    Did you or anyone complain to the campaign about that? has it been repeated, or corrected?

    Finding at least someone in the campaign is literate in science and math -- would be wonderful.

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