SPECIAL SMILE-A-WHILE ELECTION EDITION:
The New York Times journeys to deepest Ohio!

WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 14, 2012

Watching the press corps sift facts: It’s always amusing to watch the press corps attempt to wrestle with facts.

In this morning’s New York Times, Michael Shear makes a factual statement about black voters in Ohio.

Variants of his ambiguous claim have been widely repeated in the past week. Shear’s statement is part of a news report in which he attempts to explain how Obama won re-election.

Shear starts with a comical statement by Paul Ryan, in which the press corps’ favorite resident genius explains why Romney lost. “When we watched Virginia and Ohio coming in,” Ryan is quoted saying, “and those ones coming in as tight as they were and looking like we were going to lose them, that’s when it became clear we weren’t going to win.”

In only slightly different words, the brilliant Ryan said this: When we saw we were losing key states, that’s when we knew we weren’t going to win!

Shear is too polite, or perhaps too slow, to see the unintentional humor in Ryan’s attempt at analysis. He proceeds to the following passage, in which he makes his claim about Ohio’s black voters:
SHEAR (11/14/12): Mr. Ryan’s concerns follow on the heels of other Republicans who argue that the party’s lack of appeal to minority voters—many of whom live in the nation’s largest urban centers—has made it more difficult to win the presidency.

There is some anecdotal evidence to back up the analysis that Mr. Obama was helped by his appeal in the nation’s population centers. In Philadelphia and Ohio, for example, local news reports have documented dozens of city precincts where Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan failed to get a single vote. And in Ohio, turnout among blacks, many of whom live in urban areas, increased significantly over 2008.
That first bit of “anecdotal evidence” is so sad that it makes us want to take Shear and his editors in, guaranteeing them good homes in later life.

That said, versions of the ambiguous claim we have highlighted have been widespread in the week since Obama won. These claims have been based on data from the Ohio exit polls.

According to this year’s exit polls, black voters comprised 15 percent of Ohio’s total vote. In 2008, the exit polls recorded a much lower number—11 percent.

Journalists have taken this to mean that many more black voters turned out in Ohio this year. This strikes us as implausible, for reasons we will relate.

Shear makes a version of this claim in the passage we have psoted. But uh-oh! Just five paragraphs later, he also tells us this, showing no sign of noticing a possible contradiction:
SHEAR: “What Paul Ryan misses is that the Republicans have been losing the urban vote for a long, long time,” said Marc Morial, the president and chief executive of the National Urban League. “Now they are losing the suburban vote, too. They are becoming more urban in their character, in their makeup, in the problems.”

In Ohio, for example, Mr. Obama received 63,000 fewer votes in the three big urban counties in 2012 than he did in 2008. In the big urban counties in Virginia, Colorado, Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, Mr. Obama also won by smaller margins than in 2008, typically receiving fewer votes. In Milwaukee, voter turnout did increase, but the Romney/Ryan ticket picked up more than half of the increased number of voters there.
How strange! Within the space of five paragraphs, Shear has now reported these facts:
SHEAR: In Ohio, turnout among blacks, many of whom live in urban areas, increased significantly over 2008.

[...]

In Ohio, Obama received 63,000 fewer votes in the three big urban counties in 2012 than he did in 2008.
Those claims don’t have to be contradictory. But there is no sign that Shear and his editors even wondered about the way those statements go together—or fail to do so.

How odd! If turnout among blacks in Ohio increased significantly; and if “many of” those black voters live in urban areas; then why did Obama get 63,000 fewer votes in Ohio’s three big urban counties?

Shear doesn’t even bat an eye as he presents these dueling claims. Within our rather comical culture, this is the way our highest-ranking journalists perform with the simplest data.

What actually happened in Ohio this year? There is no precise count of voters by race, so we won’t be able to tell you. But before we speculate a tad, let’s look at a related claim by CBS News—a claim which was flatly bungled.

Dear God! We were linked to this claim by Paul Krugman, who tends to swallow a lot of guff in the tribal political sphere. In this case, Krugman was enjoying the idea that the Romney camp was shocked, just shocked last Tuesday night when it turned out they had lost.

In support of this somewhat unlikely idea, Krugman linked to a news report by the frequently hapless Jan Crawford. In her report, Crawford made a bogus claim concerning the way the nation’s black voters took Romney and them by surprise:
CRAWFORD (11/8/12): [The Romney campaign] made three key miscalculations, in part because this race bucked historical trends:

1. They misread turnout. They expected it to be between 2004 and 2008 levels, with a plus-2 or plus-3 Democratic electorate, instead of plus-7 as it was in 2008. Their assumptions were wrong on both sides: The president's base turned out and Romney's did not. More African-Americans voted in Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida than in 2008. And fewer Republicans did: Romney got just over 2 million fewer votes than John McCain.
Sic semper American journalists! In fact, Romney did not get “just over 2 million fewer votes than John McCain.” At present, Romney trails McCain by about 800,000 votes—and many votes remain to be counted around the nation.

Crawford didn’t seem to know that it takes weeks to compile all the votes; so it tends to go at the top of the nation’s press corps. But Crawford also bungled that claim about the black vote in those four key states.

Crawford didn’t state any basis for her claim about black turn-out. But the exit polls provide no basis for thinking that there was any significant gain in black turn-out in Virginia, North Carolina or Florida.

In each of those states, the exit polls show black voters accounting for the same percentage of the total vote as was the case in 2008. To appearances, Crawford had perhaps swallowed a somewhat unpleasant line from minions in Romney's camp:

We thought we had done everything right. And then, “the blacks” overwhelmed us!

Two days later, there was Krugman, linking to this palpable crap! It felt so good to believe the things the gullible Crawford was saying!

(When last we looked in on Crawford, she was grossly misstating what Susan Rice said. We liberals just swallowed that too.)

Let’s return to our basic question: Is this statement by Michael Shear accurate?

“In Ohio, turnout among blacks increased significantly over 2008.”

Is that statement accurate?

Depending on what it’s supposed to means, we will guess it is not. The exit polls show Ohio’s black vote growing this year as a percentage of the total. In theory, that doesn’t mean that the number of black voters increased at all. It could mean that the number of black voters stayed the same while all other turnout declined.

Beyond that, understand this:

Exit polls are surveys—approximations. In theory, Ohio’s total vote represents a precise count. The state’s exit polls do not.

On its face, that jump from 11 percent to 15 percent represents a very large jump—and black turnout was high in 2008, a fact which was widely noted. It’s possible that those data are accurate. But it’s also possible that one or both of those exit poll numbers is wrong.

Whatever! Everyone has been repeating some version of the claim, so Shear took his turn in today’s report. Neither he nor his editor was struck by the way his claims seemed to duel with each other. According to Shear:

In Ohio, turnout among blacks, many of whom live in urban areas, increased significantly over 2008. And not only that! In Ohio, Obama received 63,000 fewer votes in the three big urban counties than he did in 2008!

An editor ought to be puzzled by that. That sort of puzzlement will have to occur in some different country.

Ohio’s precise voting totals: According to current data, a bit more than 5.3 million people voted in Ohio this year. In 2008, the total recorded vote was a bit more than 5.6 million.

(Click here. Then click on Ohio where it says, “Overall results/Select a state.”)

There is no precise tabulation of how many Ohio voters were black. But if we go by those exit poll figures, there would have been about 615,000 black voters in 2008—and there would have been about 800,000 black voters this year.

That would be a very large jump, built on a baseline from 2008 which was presumably high. Despite that large jump, Obama would have received 63,000 fewer votes overall in the state's three big urban counties.

Did that large jump really happen? We don’t know—and neither do Crawford or Shear. But nothing stops the mainstream journalist from his appointed rounds, in which he must repeat all Official Approved Story Lines.

In this case, the slightly unpleasant story-line may have come from the Romney camp:

We thought we had done everything right. And then, “the blacks” overwhelmed us!

Within the base, that story might sell. Is that why they've been repeating it?

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