Saturday, November 5, 2011

Being an informed voter is hard work

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a Washington Post article that twisted some numbers about campaign contributions in order to tell a story about President Obama's connections to Wall Street that turned out to be completely false.

Joshua Tucker uncovered a similarly misleading article about Obama's fundraising...this time from Jack Gillum at the Associated Press. The title of the article is "Many Obama donors in '08 race are absent so far."

Here's the lead from Gillum's article:

Tens of thousands of people who together gave millions of dollars to Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign have gone missing this time around. Their failure to give so far may signal that some of the president's earliest supporters have lost enthusiasm.

After throwing around lots of confusing and anecdotal information, here's the crux of what the article is trying to say.

For its analysis, the AP compared the names and addresses of Obama contributors who gave between $200 and $2,500 from April to September 2007 with those who gave amounts in the same range during the same period this year. The AP adjusted its analysis to compensate for contributors who might have moved or listed a slightly different name.

Records also show a handful of Obama contributors from 2008 donated to Romney this time;

In his rebuttal of the AP article, Tucker talks to Standford University political scientist Adam Bonica who has done some analysis of his own. He found that when you look at the whole picture, Romney has lost about the same percentage of 2008 donors to Obama in 2012.

Bonica also throws this observation into the mix.

...given that 43% of Obama’s 2012 donors didn’t give to his 2008 campaign the headline could just as easily been “Obama’s reelection campaign attracts crowds of new donors.”

So we could all get on the bandwagon and say that Gillum is some evil opponent who is purposefully twisting data to take a shot at President Obama. Knowing the facts, that conclusion would be an easy one to reach.

I'd suggest its a little more subtle than that. What I think usually happens is that folks like Gillum have a perspective that is already formed and then - with the mountains of data there is to choose from - he is drawn to whatever supports that perspective and ignores the rest.

We know that human beings do this all the time. Psychologists have even come up with a name for it...confirmation bias. Of course, its much easier to detect in people who hold opposing views than it is to see it in ourselves. So it always pays to be vigilant.

Anyone who, like me, watched the debate over health care reform unfold at Daily Kos should know this tendency very well. What I saw happening was that a group of folks who never really supported President Obama would latch on to stories (usually coming from Politico) that quoted "unnamed sources" talking about how the president was about to sell progressives down the river in some way. The administration's culprit at that time was Rahm Emanuel and so every sellout rumor was pinned on him. The narrative (or perspective) was simply affirmed by every rumor that surfaced. And by the time those rumors were exposed as untrue, the crowd had moved on to the next one.

I saw the same thing this week with an article by Gretchen Morgenson in the NYT. She was writing about the settlement deal the Obama administration is working on with the banks over foreclosure fraud. Here's how she categorizes her "news" right up front.

While the exact terms remain under wraps, some aspects of this agreement — between banks on one side, and the federal government and a raft of state attorneys general on the other — are coming into focus.

Things could change, of course, and the deal could go by the boards. But here’s the state of play, according to people who have been briefed on the negotiations but were not authorized to discuss them publicly.
(Emphasis mine)

That report led to a blistering article on Crooks and Liars by Mike Lux (this time around the administration whipping boy is Timothy Geithner, never mind that its DOJ who is managing the settlement talks) and then quoted on the front page of Daily Kos by Joan McCarter. It all fits a narrative these folks established a long time ago about the Obama administration selling out to Wall Street. Given their history - along with the qualifiers Morgenson identified herself - I think I'll continue to watch and wait before I jump on the "Obama-as-sellout" bandwagon.

We all know that Faux News and other right wing media regularly spin stories to create false impressions...that's why Media Matters exists. But we often have to create our own filters to sort through information from the MSM and progressives sites with just as much caution. Being a truly informed voter these days is hard work. Its no wonder so many people just ignore it all and revel in their ignorance.


  1. Excellent Analysis, Smartypants. Yes, we do have to be on guard against the confirmation bias echo chamber. Sometimes I think the people who perpetrate the process are willful in their intent and other times I think they're just not supporters of change and progress and never were but have inserted themselves into the dialogue, posing as progressives. There will never be any way to know, so using filters and bs detectors and learning the games they play is what is left. Please keep pointing this stuff out for us.

  2. Tien Le - you're right of course. Its impossible to know motivations. I suppose the best thing we can do is promote critical thinking - in others as well as ourselves.

  3. Thank you for a cogent and sobering article. Too few of us read with enough of a critical-thinking eye. It actually cost me the closeness I once enjoyed with my step-mother, who repeatedly forwarded anti-Obama articles from, of all publications, American Thinker. I would try to break them down into snippets that showed her that "someone who attended a party who said they heard someone say Obama had close ties to pick-your-terrorist-sympathizer-of-the-day" was a ludicrous basis on which to formulate judgment. She's a highly educated woman with an advanced degree.

    But she had been convinced none-the-less.

    Yet while it's enormously frustrating coming from those on the right, it's downright maddening coming from the left. I have never wanted to smack my own party members around as much as I have these past 3 years.

    Keep fighting the good fight, Smartypants!

    P.S. Huge thanks go out to @allanbrauer for directing me to your blog — I love it! If you don't mind, I'll be linking to it on my own blog, Reelect Democrats.

  4. Thanks Jill!

    That @allanbrauer is a gem.