You’ve probably caught on to my gimmick: Both presidents are the same man, Barack Obama. And while those two descriptions of his economic record are based on facts, neither of them is really true. In politics and beyond, we often use numbers to validate our intuitions and to measure the vagaries of life, yet we know that these numbers are often imprecise. And perhaps more than any prior election, this year’s race has shown how easily numbers can be abused, exploited or misconstrued.
The campaigns of Obama and Mitt Romney have used numbers as weapons dressed as incontrovertible facts, often pulling them out of context and ignoring contrary evidence. But the misuse of numbers goes beyond political machinations. Numbers, particularly economic statistics, are often not as precise as they appear, especially when reported in real time. And yes, the news media (myself included) are guilty, too, with our relentless focus on any given month’s jobs number and what it means for the campaign. We’ll surely do that again when the nation’s third-quarter economic growth is reported on Friday. And again on Nov. 2, when we’ll get a look at how many jobs were created and what the unemployment rate was in the final month before the election.
It is not surprising that numbers are so central to this year’s political campaign, since the nation’s chief challenges are economic. Numbers offer candidates a way to provide evidence of their achievements or concrete plans for the future. They convey facts, not spin.
For voters, numbers may take on emotional significance — a couple of digits that can, simply and straightforwardly, quantify their feelings about the economy. If they’re down about their personal financial situation, they can ask: How was unemployment above 8 percent for so long under Obama? Or if they think they aren’t getting a fair shot, they can wonder: How can Romney promise a $5 trillion tax cut for the rich?
Even more than winning over new voters, though, numbers may energize supporters. “The numbers represent an opportunity to seize on facts and to prove to oneself you’re not just being biased, but the situation, as you perceive it, has been shown to be true by government statistics,” said Jeffrey Berry, a political scientist at Tufts University.