Graphing Politics
August 19, 2012 5:51 PM   Subscribe

Why doesn't Obama or any politician for that matter use graphs to explain things? For all of their sophistication in Internet and social media, why doesn't the Obama campaign just go on television and show the American people a damn chart? Are we that stupid or am I missing something here?
posted by jasondigitized to Law & Government (22 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Because anyone who is interested enough to watch that either already knows the information or actively disbelieves hard data because it is inconsistent with their ideology. And the other 95% of people will not watch it, but they will watch and hear and read the jokes comparing the candidate's presentation to Ross Perot's use of charts for weeks. They won't be sure why being compared to Ross Perot is supposed to be bad, but they'll know that everyone is treating that as a bad thing, and so the candidate that tries will be perceived as having done something stupid and wrong.
posted by Benjy at 5:56 PM on August 19, 2012 [16 favorites]

Ross Perot tried using charts during his campaign and he was roundly considered something of a nutcase for doing so, though this may be in large part to him being Ross Perot.
posted by jquinby at 5:56 PM on August 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

Also, in Obama's case, this would play into the right-wing characterization of him as 'professorial' or some such nonsense.
posted by wikipedia brown boy detective at 5:57 PM on August 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I remember that Ross Perot tried and was mercilessly mocked for doing so. Try to find old SNL sketches to see some of the reaction to his graphs.
posted by msbrauer at 5:58 PM on August 19, 2012

Well, Niall Ferguson's new piece has charts and yet, plenty of people don't agree with his conclusion or his chart. Charts are only as useful as the data they show or the source of that data.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:00 PM on August 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Also, I am regularly shocked by the number of educated people who can't actually understand a fairly simple chart when presented with one.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 6:00 PM on August 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: So unpacking that a little more, what was wrong with Ross Perot using charts? Is it ok to use charts in the board room but not in the oval office?
posted by jasondigitized at 6:02 PM on August 19, 2012

Most people don't listen to whole presentations. They see clips, or listen to people talk about the candidates speeches. Charts that have any subtlety will be ineffective, and charts that look stark would be equivalent to a sign saying 'Me Good! Romney Bad!' No one would take them at face value, and any inaccuracy, real or imagined, will become a talking point to rally the opposition. Where is the advantage?
posted by Garm at 6:02 PM on August 19, 2012

Best answer: Short answer: They are for their base, it won't work on anyone else.

Long answer: The Obama campaign has made extensive use of charts and infographics to motivate their base. From an information design perspective, many of them are poor data delivery vehicles. Charts don't have axis labels, simplistic pie charts rule, and information density is very low. See "Contraception Facts" for a particularly information-poor example. However, the point of those graphics is to motivate, not educate, and they do a brilliant job with clean design emphasizing one or a handful of points. See this example of data about their donors.

The chart tells you what you already sort of believe, but it's a way to break the monotony of text emails. If you are Facebook friends with enough liberals you will see these "infographics", many from Obama, circulating virally.

One particularly good use of a bar chart that fits all the boxes of being information dense and properly labeled is this chart of job creation, which has spread in interactive and static forms. This chart has also been animated in one of their TV spots. These are great reinforcing graphics that tell their supporters how to explain Obama's accomplishments.

As already mentioned above (in the time I was typing this, God bless Metafilter), Ross Perot's use of charts was mercilessly mocked. Obama already has a cerebral image, being a chart-wielding poindexter will only further disconnect him.

This election is not about persuasion. It is not about convincing someone to vote for Obama. It is not about the swing voter because they are such a miniscule part of the Presidential electorate. It is about base turnout, and the activist base that Obama needs to increase turnout among key constituency groups (minorities, LGBT, young voters, etc.) are very well informed and love charts. In fact, swing voters are some of the least informed people in America short of the people who do not vote, they are the least likely to be swayed by long-winded policy hot air and charts they barely understand.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 6:04 PM on August 19, 2012 [16 favorites]

Obama does use them to a degree. This graph is blown up really huge in his campaign office windows in (at least) Milwaukee and Chicago.

I think that one reason why politicians might not do it regularly is because the other side can just as easily make a compelling looking chart with a seemingly opposite conclusion. Like these charts suggesting that Obama's is all wrong. It's just easier calling each other names and feigning indignation at the various talking points one side is lobbing at the other.
posted by AgentRocket at 6:05 PM on August 19, 2012

Garm has it (as does H.U.M.C, on preview)

Effective presentation of data in charts is actually sort of hard, though I think we've been largely trained to think it's easy thanks to built-in wizards and whatnot. If you want the full-tilt-boogie treatment on why this is so, take a gander at Edward Tufte's book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. The title may be as dry as it gets, but I promise that you'll never look at another chart the same way again afterward.
posted by jquinby at 6:05 PM on August 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Didn't Bush basically win his elections based on his image as the candidate that voters would most like to have a beer with? Generally speaking, beer and data charts are not the best mix.
posted by mannequito at 6:11 PM on August 19, 2012

Response by poster: How hard is it to explain how much money corporate America is sitting on right now as compared to many jobs that money would create?
posted by jasondigitized at 6:12 PM on August 19, 2012

How hard is it to explain how much money corporate America is sitting on right now as compared to many jobs that money would create?

The republicans and Fox News would just create a fake graph that didn't say what they purported it to say, but they would swear it said just the opposite.

Oh wait, they're already doing that. So the net effect is that people come more and more to see charts and data as useless (well this one says something and that one says the opposite, so it's a "disputed" issue, so I can just tune out now). Same thing they've done with journalism.
posted by cashman at 7:10 PM on August 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

This is an even better example of misleading charts, I think. I agree with cashman: I think in part what's going on is that people have been taught to distrust data and empirical results. Facts will lie to you; it's better to rely on unsupported assertions from celebrity pundits.
posted by hattifattener at 7:27 PM on August 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

This was just in the NYT magazine today:
People change their minds all the time, even about very important matters. It’s just hard to do when the stakes are high. That’s why marshaling data and making rational arguments won’t work. Whether you’re changing your own mind or someone else’s, the key is emotional, persuasive storytelling.
posted by adamrice at 7:27 PM on August 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think a lot of people would feel incredibly patronized and talked down to if a candidate started pointing to a chart on TV -- "he's trying to teach me with pictures?" You may not think that's a logical reaction, but I'm pretty sure it'd be common.
posted by ostro at 7:30 PM on August 19, 2012

Someone on the Sunday morning shows mentioned that also. That they thought Ryan would have a tough time because he needed to educate people about his plan. But, and the panelists all agreed, campaigns are not for educating, they are for getting out the vote or mobilizing. So, as adamrice says, compelling storytelling. That presumably reiterates what you want people to think about.
posted by cashman at 8:02 PM on August 19, 2012

Most people can't read charts and graphs. I say this as someone who tries to teach a couple hundred people a year HOW to read charts and graphs, and is constantly amazed at how incapable they are at it.

Even when they can get the basics of what the graph is actually showing, they miss the nuances, such as standard of deviation.

And, finally, people don't want to know. Anyone can create a graph, right? That means anyone could make a fake graph. Most people are unable/unwilling to truly critically evaluate a graph that does not meet their preconceptions, so they leave out the critical part of it and say, "oh that's not true."
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 8:29 PM on August 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Mitt Romney just used a whiteboard on a campaign stop.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:12 PM on August 19, 2012

Also, in Obama's case, this would play into the right-wing characterization of him as 'professorial' or some such nonsense.

It wouldn't work for Romney either because he doesn't want to draw attention to his management consulting and private equity past, not to mention his image as a boring robot.
posted by atrazine at 9:16 AM on August 20, 2012

Graphs are a powerful way to communicate numerical and quatitative information, but they have large downsides too.

They are fragile and sensitive to manipulation. It's easy to mislead with a graph by showing windowed or scaled data, or, the favourite of all misleading graphs a "trendline" with very poor fit that happens to show what you want, while leaving out the base data.

Most graphs demand attention to detail to decypher a graph and figure out exactly what it says and what it leaves out.

Because graphs can be both untrustworthy and hard to understand, most people discount them, the same way they do with statistics. Like stats, graphs can be very powerful analytical tools, but they are not very well suited to highly-partisan, limited communication like press conferences or news stories.

Also don't underestimate how intimidated people can be by "math"---even people with advanced degrees and a great deal of social status. If the gatekeeper reporters don't like it, your message won't get out. Including technical info at all risks reporters and your audience tuning out and skipping your whole message.
posted by bonehead at 10:53 AM on August 20, 2012

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