Skewing the Data

Horses and Bayonets
Horses and Bayonets
Horses and Bayonets

Looking at the interpretation of polls in the presidential race, you might think there are actually two distinct races: the one from the Democrats’ point of view and the one from the Republicans’ point of view.

The Democrats say President Obama has a numerical lock on the Electoral College. The Republicans say Romney is well ahead in the polls.

Disregarding the strategic motives behind presenting a more positive picture than what’s actually there—it may boost your party’s morale, but it also might get fewer voters to the polls if they think their candidate is going to win anyway—why is there a big disparity in poll results?


According to the Boston Globe, the sheer number of polls these days is astonishing: “six daily national tracking polls; since Labor Day, about 40 other national polls by 20 outlets logged on the Read Clear Politics website; in 11 battleground states, about 240 polls by more than 50 media outlets, colleges and commercial pollsters.”

You see, Americans are numbers people—we want to hear the data behind the ideas (well, most of us do, anyway). The politicians know this, which is why they’re always peppering their speeches with ‘facts.’

“Both campaigns, Republican and Democratic, have figured that polls can be used as a kind of weapon in a discussion to keep their supporters engaged,” Andrew Smith of the University of New Hampshire told the Boston Globe.

They go even further than that. The candidates use data to make their arguments. (They even re-use data that’s already been proven sketchy, banking on the fact that we haven’t researched it. The fact is, data that confirms our beliefs is much more appealing than data that contradicts it.)

Subjectivity comes into play as the campaigns sift through for sound bites. They tend to pick and choose very carefully. And present extremely carefully.

If you’ve read the fact checkers, you know both President Obama and former Governor Romney have picked and chosen or just plain twisted, making very subjective analyses of data, all through the campaign. It’s to the point where their conflicting messages necessitate going to the data ourselves.

In some cases, the candidates were both generally accurate. But their presentations skewed the data. One of the highest-profile examples was over the size of our navy.

In the last presidential debate, Romney said that the U.S. Navy has fewer ships than it has had since World War I.

He was correct in the sense that we have fewer ships now than in 1917. According to the Defense Department’s Naval History and Heritage Command, there were 285 active ships as of Sept. 30, 2011 (the latest data), and 342 on April 6, 1917. But Romney wasn’t correct about ‘since’ 1917—from 2005 to 2008, our navy had fewer active ships than now.

To counter this claim, Obama said that we also have fewer “horses and bayonets” than we did before. The comment suggests a contrast of our military tools today versus our military tools of yesterday. But we still have horses and bayonets.

According to the New York Times, the U.S. Marine Corps has some 175,000 bayonets, “or nearly one for each of the 197,500 current active-duty Marines.” For overseas deployments, they carry them in a pocket of their body armor, in case they need them. Also, American commandos used horses in Afghanistan in 2001 to locate enemy positions and call in airstrikes.

The subjectivity of the candidates dictated how they presented the data. Romney, wanting more ships, ignored the vast disparity between ships of today and those of yesterday. Obama, wanting to illustrate that disparity, dismissed military tools still used today as relics of yesterday.

No matter what the topic, the candidates have repeated this pattern over and over throughout the campaign. Both sides pick and choose data and present it with their own special interpretation.

About Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith has written about technology and life for almost 20 years, as a reporter, technical writer and blogger. He currently foists his ideas onto the world as the Marketing Communications Director for Plum Voice, an IVR-industry leader, through Plum's IVR Deconstructed blog. Charlie has a B.A. from James Madison University

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