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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Misleading Percentages

As we all luxuriate for a few more days in the post-election analysis phase of the campaign cycle, it’s important to note a couple of simple math principles that often get forgotten. The most important is that percentages of votes don’t win elections; raw votes do.
It’s the most natural thing in the world to troll through the exit polls, comparing Obama’s percentage performance in this or that group to, say, John Kerry’s, and look for the big numbers. And there is real value in knowing, for example, that Obama improved the Democratic percentage of the Latino vote by 13 points. But this shouldn’t be confused with an analysis of why Obama won and Kerry lost. Small percentage changes in large groups of voters often have more electoral value than large percentage changes in smaller groups. Thus, for example, Obama’s 5% improvement over Kerry among Protestants, who make up 54% of the electorate, had more value than his 7% improvement among Catholics, who are half that size. It’s all basic arithmetic once you think abuot it.
A different kind of “percentage” error is sometimes made in assessments of voter turnout. On Election Day, I heard some county election official down in Georgia whining about “surprisingly low turnout,” which he was measuring as the percentage of registered voters showing up at the polls. He didn’t mention the fact that more than 400,000 new voters registered this year in GA, which means the same “turnout” percentage yielded a lot more votes. In reality, the only relevant baseline for measuring turnout isn’t percentage of registered voters, but percentage of the voting-age population (VAP), a number provided by the census, or the more refined voting-eligible population (VEP), which excludes non-citizens and disenfranchised felons.
Keeping the numbers straight can help avoid a lot of confusion when it comes to figuring on what happened in this and every other election.

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