Saturday, May 05, 2012

Real numbers and made-up differences

Here's the offending lede from which the Freep's deck is taken (the main hed, stripped across the biz front,* is "U.S. job growth slumps in April"):

U.S. job growth slumped in April for a second straight month. It suggested an economy that is growing steadily but still sluggishly, which could tighten the presidential race.**


The AP is either stating a testable proposition about measurable stuff or it's just tossing words around at random because it thinks it needs to say something about the relationship between the business cycle and campaign politics. We can't rule out the latter, but let's be charitable and assume the former. That would mean, among other things, that there's a current state of tightness in the presidential race that could become tighter -- in a way attributable to real movement in the population, rather than chance -- owing to the rate at which the economy is growing. Is there?

One way to find out is to look a roundup of surveys about the presidential race. Let's use the index at Real Clear Politics (not the "RCP average," which can neither tighten nor loosen because it's a meaningless number). Of the four most recent as of this writing, we find two tracking polls -- Rasmussen, with 1,500 likely voters for a standard error of .013,*** and Gallup, with 2,200 registered voters (SE .011) -- in which the candidates are separated by a point and two polls in which they're tied. For the race to get any tighter, the campaigns would basically have to start executing their own supporters whenever things start looking up, and that's not going to be good for contributions in the long term.

What the AP probably means is something like: Mediocre expansion that manifests itself in nonspectacular ways tends to be a drag on the incumbent. That's an accurate if not especially interesting observation; the AP may have declined to make it out of concern that it would be pilloried as a lapdog of the Maoists. But it's a different sort of claim than suggesting that the race -- I'm trying to avoid excessive scare quotes here, but the election is still six months away -- is going to "tighten." Should the Rasmussen tracking poll show Romney up by 2 points on Sunday, it doesn't mean he's going to take on ballast until the race is even again.

Lesson for editors? When a story makes a bogus claim, don't amplify it in the headline. Ask for evidence, and if the evidence isn't forthcoming, get rid of the claim.  

* Yes, the Web site uses a comma to coordinate the clauses. Yes Web editing is every bit as important as print editing. Yes, people really do think less of products that don't care.
** There may be a few die-hards at the AP flagellating themselves over the relative clause, on grounds that it doesn't modify anything tangible, but that's not a real grammar concern and it's not particularly a sensemaking concern.
*** Meaning the "margin of error" at 95% confidence is ...

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home