Statistics in Politics - Lies and Damn Lies

July 2, 2008 By Alan J. Salzberg
The nice thing about politicians and the newspaper columnists that write about them is that they lie a lot about statistics. That makes writing a blog that points out the errors easy to create. This weeks subject is David Brooks' latest New York Times column.


Brooks takes issue with Obama’s claim that his fundraising is from a broad base of small donors, and goes on to compare Obama money raised to McCain money raised by special interest group. I am not going to attack the actual dollar figures that Brooks gives. He cites no sources whatsoever, so that makes them hard to attack anyway. Instead, I am going to show how presenting raw numbers without proper context creates a biased picture.


Let’s take Brooks’ first claim: He says “lawyers account for the biggest chunk of Democratic donations” and have donated $18 million, as compared to $5 million for McCain. This sounds like 1) Obama is getting most (“biggest chunk”) of his donations from one big special interest group (lawyers) and 2) Obama is getting 3 times as much of his donations from this group as McCain.


Here’s the problem: Obama has out raised McCain by more than 2 to 1. According to CBS News, Obama’s total amount raised is $295.5 million compared to McCain’s $121.9 million. Thus, the $18 million raised from lawyers represents only 6% of the money raised. Still a lot of money, but it puts the “biggest chunk” in context. McCain’s $5 million raised from lawyers, on the other hand, represents 4% of the total money he raised. Thus, Obama is getting more as a percentage from lawyers but instead of 18 to 5, or 3 times as much, it’s 6% to 4%, or 50% more. Another issue is that there is a difference between individuals who are lawyers and public interest groups for lawyers. Brooks is trying to blur those lines by grouping all their donations together (to be fair, he does not say "special interest groups"). Sure, a lot of lawyers certainly support some of the public interest groups, but others do not. Also, these groups can be at odds with one another, so grouping all lawyers together gives you the bigger number but is inaccurate.


Brooks goes on to compare several other groups of professions. In each of these areas, Obama receives more money in absolute dollars. However, in terms of percentage of total donations, McCain is usually always receiving more: from financial securities workers, McCain gets 36% more as a percent of his total; from real estate workers, McCain gets 94% more; from bank workers, McCain gets 82% more; from hedge fund workers, McCain gets 29% more; from medical/health care workers, McCain gets 4% more.


There are two other areas (in addition to lawyers) where Obama is receiving more in percentage terms. The first is “communications and electronics”, where Obama is getting 106% more in percentage terms. The second is “Professors and other people who work in education.” In that area, Obama gets a whopping 4 times as much as McCain as a percentage of total funds raised. Brooks implies that these are "part of a spontaneous movement of small-money enthusiasts," but he doesn't support that with any evidence showing that these groups are anything more than an unorganized group of individuals--all the polls have indicated that more educated people lean toward Obama, so why wouldn't they give more?


The last thing that Brooks points out is that although, as Obama claims, 90% of his donors gave less than $200, only 45% of his donated money comes from such small donors. This is a good point, and Obama, who has been claiming this for awhile, should be called to the mat on it.


However, it would be more interesting to look at the percent of small donors and money from small donors in McCain’s campaign as a comparison. You can bet that it’s less than 45% of donated money and less than 90% of donors. Yet, a comment on Brooks’ article by a New Republic blogger puts it into context, pointing out that “31 percent of Bush's money in 2004 came from donations of $200 or less (compared to 16 percent in 2000). Kerry, meanwhile, raised 37 percent...” (the blog sites this article on 2004 donations (by Joseph Graf) as its source). Thus, 45% is a lot, but the number has been increasing for both parties, with the most obvious reason that the Internet has allowed candidates to easily reach out to everyone, rather than raising most of their money through $1,000 a plate dinners and the like (campaign finance reform, which limits individual contributions, also had a role in bringing up the percentage raised through smaller donors).


The lesson here is, of course: “don’t believe the numbers.” David Brooks is going to make them look good for McCain--he’s a columnist, not a reporter--just as other columnists are going to make them look good for Obama.