In Politics, Statistics Don’t Always Add Up

As a true indication that the political season is heating up, 41NBC’s General Manager Derek Brown received a letter from Jim Marshall’s legal counsel, urging him to not allow the National Republican Congressional Committee to purchase commercial air time to run a particular ad that Marshall’s attorney considers “false, misleading and deceptive”.

You’ve probably seen it. A cut out of Marshall drives from the Bibb County Courthouse in Macon to Washington and picks up a passenger in front of the White House.  The passenger is Speaker Pelosi, who seems really excited to see Jim Marshall give her a ride in his cherry red convertible. It looks sort of like they’re about to go on a wild adventure. In an ominous tone, the narrator says, “Jim Marshall hit the road with Nancy Pelosi.  Jim voted with her almost 90% percent of the time.”

The attorney who faxed the letter to the station– David Oedel, who is also a law professor at Mercer– says the statistics don’t tell the real story about Marshall’s voting record.

Statistics can be that way sometimes.  So if you’re watching a political commercial, don’t take the information presented as the gospel.  That should be a general rule for any advertisement.

The Washington Post has analyzed voting records of U.S. Representatives and determined Rep. Marshall voted with his party 88.5% of the time, although I don’t know the WP’s methodology.  That’s the source of the NRCC ad’s information.  The same Washington Post webpage also says Pelosi had 94 votes.  Marshall had 1,519 votes.

Oedel says Marshall voted with Pelosi 3.9% of the time (61 of 1555 votes), 4% of the time (61 of 1519 votes), or 64.2% of the time (61 of 95 votes) depending on which parameters he chose for his analysis.

As a news consumer, I remind myself to be skeptical of the information that campaigns present.  As a journalist, sometimes I am numb to statistics until they’re proven to be credible and relevant.

Here’s the bottom line, Marshall is running as an independent/moderate democrat who’s willing to vote against the party on numerous issues, but no matter how much he tries to distance himself from Pelosi, she’s the party leader in the House, so he can only get so far.

Categories: Brandon Long