There’s nothing like politics. And there’s nothing like political rhetoric. Each political season, we’re treated to the most strident claims, the most incendiary language. Nearly every candidate at one time or another has uttered these words:
“This is the most important election of our time”
after which he proceeds to make the case that his election is the only thing stopping the collapse of civilization as we know it.
We hear about polls lamenting the role of attack ads in political campaigns, but we’re not even sure whether negative ads work, or whether they are self-defeating. In truth, it’s difficult to know how effective negativity in politics is; voters swayed by heated rhetoric would hardly admit to that, preferring to cast their decision-making as the result of careful consideration of issues.
But challenge voters on what they actually know, and it’s likely you’ll find the rhetoric and the sound bites play a huge role in election results. Consider this video made immediately after the 2008 election. The Obama voters profiled display very little actual knowledge of things said during the campaign, or of the history of the candidates. They consistently answer incorrectly when asked about the presidential race. The Zogby poll on which these interviews was based asked these questions of the most educated voters – over half were college graduates – and still they could not answer most questions correctly.
What you find, even among these highly-educated respondents, are voters who have taken media themes, entertainment “news” programs and their own prejudices and turned them into a justification for voting the way they did. While that suggests that the support for their candidate is not based on factual information, it does not suggest they feel they would vote differently given new information. In fact, one voter answered this way: “I think I’m not as informed as I thought I was, but I still don’t think I would change my vote.”
This isn’t just a problem on the left, though.
In the GOP Primaries, Texas has become Ground Zero on the economic debate since Governor Rick Perry has entered the race. Whatever you think of him or his policies, the state’s record has come under tremendous scrutiny over the economic record. Texas has on one hand been lauded for doing so well in the midst of a recession, while also receiving criticism for low spending on certain priorities and accused of having its statistical data misused to paint a more rosy picture of the Texas economy.
People on all sides of the debate are spinning the numbers. Texas has a good economy? Then why is unemployment still so high? Why are most of the jobs created in Texas minimum wage?
At Political Math, Matthias Shapiro spent some time going over the numbers for Texas, and came up with this analysis. It tackles several of those criticisms we find about Texas, such as the unemployment rate, the minimum-wage jobs line, the population growth and the increase in the number of public-sector jobs. It’s not a quick and easy read, but it’s worth a few extra minutes to understand that old saw about lies, damned lies and statistics.
For instance, start with his first observation on unemployment. Put together the unemployment rate and the population growth rate, and it’s not so difficult to see why unemployment would be relatively high. Some people have to have moved here in advance of having a job, hoping the “Texas Miracle” would work for them. Just check the last census; Texas gained enough in population to add four seats in Congress, twice as many as any other state added. It would be difficult to track new residents to their new jobs, but it’s reasonable to assume that many newcomers are still searching for work, thus inflating unemployment figures for Texas.
Will there be perpetual spin around these numbers? Undoubtedly. The argument over whether Perry has had much to do with the success of Texas is certainly an interesting one, but the greater point here is that too often we are running after evidence that proves our point rather than trying to discover the facts.
Conservatives can’t afford to regurgitate talking points without insisting on checking their veracity. If it means a delayed reaction to some charge or accusation, better that than standing firmly behind a lie. If we’re going to differentiate ourselves from people who voted with blind allegiance for someone merely because of rhetoric, we have to go deeper than sound bite politics ourselves.