The Iowa Caucuses: Confronting Our Innumeracy (#1)

Feb 2, 2016

In last night’s TV coverage of the Iowa caucuses, two words kept coming up – “winner” and “bellwether” – showing that when it comes to the real meanings of numbers as well as words, even the “experts” don’t get it.

Let’s start with “winner,” a word that got thrown around a lot last night, as in, “The Democratic caucus is too close to declare a winner yet.” This is both a verbal and a numerical mistake. First of all, in order for there to be a “winner,” there has to be something to win, like an elected office or a football game. In this case, the only thing at stake was Democratic National Convention delegates – 44 of the 4,764 delegates, to be exact. Even a large anomaly in last-minute vote counts would have led to at most a one-delegate shift between Clinton and Sanders, since Iowa is no longer a winner-take-all state.

(The news outlets were at pains to observe that in spite of the closeness of the contest, Iowa had no provisions for a recount. Well, of course not – recounts are expensive and time-consuming, so there must be a reason for them, and the possible shift of one delegate isn’t one of them.)

Moreover, in a margin as close as the Democratic caucuses – a few hundred votes out of 171,000 Iowans who showed up – there is no statistical difference between Sanders and Clinton. The potential variation due to randomness – miscounts, non-counts, overcounts, votes that would be different a few hours later, etc. – is larger than the margin of “victory.” The correct statement about the outcome is that contest was a statistical tie.

I write frequently about how numbers are presented, but in this case the news outlets present the numbers attractively and sometimes even well (there is a difference), but they often have no idea what those words mean.

In my next post, we’ll move on to bellwether. Stay tuned.

“Painting with Numbers” is my effort to get people to focus on making numbers understandable.  I welcome your feedback and your favorite examples.  Follow me on twitter at @RandallBolten.

Purchase your copy of painting with numbers today