What Role Do Statistics Play in Politics?

What Role Do Statistics Play in Politics?
What Role Do Statistics Play in Politics?

Whether we realize it or not, statistics are at work all around us. From healthcare to business to education, statistics in everyday life are used to identify, analyze and affect ideas and behavior. Some of the most interesting statistics are applied in the political realm.

An online MS in Applied Statistics from Michigan Technological University prepares students for careers in politics that involve statistics.

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10 Uses of Statistics in Politics

Behind the scenes in every arena of politics, statisticians are generating information that fuels political theory, campaign strategy, and policy development. Here is a glimpse into 10 uses of statistics related to political systems.

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1. Public Information

Citizens of a given community, state or nation need to know and understand how their government functions. Beyond mere knowledge, they want to interpret how political structures, policies, and practices impact their lives. In democratic societies, these citizens exercise their voice by voting.

Election polls and public opinion polls are key tools in collecting and disseminating public information. The Pew Research Center, a leader in conducting public research, says that the primary purpose of election polls is public understanding (source).

A critical element of communicating public information is the media. Writers, reporters and other media personnel rely on statistical reports to inform and educate their audiences. The media is also a forum for calls to action – challenging individuals and groups to act as agents of change.

Another aspect of information-sharing is in the sphere of formal education. Teachers in public and private schools—from primary to university levels—depend on applied statistics in teaching political science and public policy. Consider, just as an example, how many textbooks and educational websites include graphs and charts generated by statisticians.

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2. Election Forecasts

During any election season, media channels clamor for the most current and accurate forecasts of the expected results. Statisticians develop complex models that consider numerous dynamic factors to deliver the most likely predictions.

FiveThirtyEight, an internet initiative hosted by ABC News, for example, is on a mission to give objective reviews of projected election outcomes (source). The organization has been making these predictions for years, with increasingly advanced analytics.

Most recently, the 538 site (named for the total number of electors in the electoral college) has developed a sophisticated model for predicting the results of the 2020 Democratic primary. Beyond traditional forecasting factors, this new model incorporates simulations for polling swings and state-by-state effects (source).

As data scientists discover new ways to collect and interpret data, election forecasting continues to evolve. Forecasts are important to the general public, the news media, and the candidates.

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3. Political Campaign Strategy

Political candidates spend huge sums of money on election campaigns. While the public primarily sees funding spent on advertising, there are other critical – and costly – financial aspects, too. One large chunk of spending is statistical research that leads to strategy.

All election spending is measured by the Federal Election Commission and then reported to the public by third parties. For the 2019-2020 election cycle, through February 21, 2020 (prior to Super Tuesday in the Democratic primaries), candidates spent $163,636,308 in the category of strategy & research (source).

Research in political elections has ramifications for every aspect of a candidate’s campaign. Examples of interesting statistics that lead to actionable information include the following:

  • Public opinion that affects a candidate’s position on issues
  • Voter attitudes that influence campaign messaging
  • Demographics that determine targeting
  • Media habits and preferences that drive advertising placement

Applied statistics can have a dramatic impact on the outcome of a political campaign, and this creates high value for the role of statisticians.

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4. Microtargeting in Elections

One particular aspect of campaign strategy has emerged in contemporary context. Microtargeting is a technique that relies on statistical methods to draw conclusions about individuals from big data. By linking variables in the raw data, data scientists now have the ability to identify consequential patterns that can be applied to predict response on particular issues (source).

Using big data, modern political campaigns have unprecedented access to huge volumes of information about voters. Unlike politics of the past, today’s campaigns can target individuals with tailored messages based on their preferences and interests (source). Microtargeting can even draw increased turnout among non-traditional voters (source).

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5. Public Policy

Statistical information drives planning and decision-making in public policy, and major organizations have been established to facilitate these processes. Federal statistical agencies are charged with collecting and analyzing data across major government entities such as the Commerce Department, the Education Department and the Labor Department.

Here are just a few of the ways these statistical agencies contribute to policy analysis and development:

  • The National Center for Health Statistics conducts population and provider surveys to collect information on topics such as nutrition, family growth, and hospital care. This information is used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to influence governmental policy related to improving health (source).
  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks data such as inflation, consumer spending, and employment. The BLS serves public and private sectors to inform decisions for policymakers, businesses, and individuals looking for jobs (source).
  • The Bureau of Justice Statistics studies crime and judicial systems through such practices as interviews with crime victims and evaluations of the justice system. Findings are used to fight crime and to regulate efficiency (source).

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6. Economic Regulation

A nation’s economy is incredibly complex, with countless variables affecting the cycles of a myriad of interrelated systems. Economic regulation is an intricate interaction between governmental and market forces.

The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis provides essential statistics about the economy that inform all three branches of government and private sectors. A world leader in economic statistics, the BEA accumulates and analyzes data, devises analytical methods, and communicates information from findings (source).

These are some ways BEA data affects the economy (source):

  • The BEA produces some of the world’s most notable statistics, such as gross domestic product (GDP). This information influences the government’s decision-making about economic issues like taxes and interest rates. The data is also used by market leaders to communicate key indicators to investors and to implement strategy.
  • Location-based measurements by the BEA drive federal action. The U.S. government distributes hundreds of billions of dollars, and allocations are affected by regional statistics such as census data.
  • International financial information is also developed and disseminated by the BEA. This affects trade negotiations, price indexes and international market shares for private companies.

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7. Legislation

Public opinion and congressional action are closely connected. It is important for legislators to listen to the people they represent — the people who elected them to office.

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Members of Congress receive large volumes of communication from constituents. With the ever-increasing use of technology, the number of contacts from citizens is steeply rising, too. Office staff members are tasked with receiving all this input and translating it to information that reflects the whole (source).

Further, lobbyists represent special interests of the people. As lobbyists seek to persuade legislators, one key resource they use is quantitative information. The receiving lawmaker applies this information in the broader context to more clearly understand issues and potential outcomes of proposed legislation.

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8. Diplomacy and International Initiatives

In the United States, managing relationships with the leaders and citizens of other countries is a function of the Department of State. Diplomacy promotes American interests while building positive relationships with other nations. Data analysis in foreign affairs strengthens diplomacy by providing useful information for programming and policy decisions.

Data in diplomacy has been studied by the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Some identified application examples include (source):

  • Evaluation of international aid or lending based on a comparison of detailed levels of data.
  • Global health initiatives based on tracking of mortality rates.
  • Fighting human rights violations based on data collected by non-profit groups.

The Brown University library provides links to data sets with international statistics. Data includes topics from industry to politics to education and more (source). This is the type of information used by scholars and diplomatic leaders.

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9. Social Science Research

The Social Sciences provide a foundational understanding for improving social systems and building communities. For every public personality leading change in society, there are players in the background studying and catalyzing movements. Statistical information is a core resource for social scientists.

Organizations that provide statistics in everyday life are critical to social science research in politics. Political categorization, such as studies by the Pew Research Center, gives insights about the underlying perspectives and values among the citizens of a political state (source). This work depends on statisticians to develop, execute and communicate research.

Similarly, American National Election Studies produces statistical reports that measure various traits and motivations of the U.S. electorate. For example, the ANES Guide includes interesting statistics such as the following (source):

  • Social characteristics like gender, education and occupation.
  • Public opinion on matters of policy like government health insurance and military spending.
  • Evaluation of political candidates.
  • Involvement in politics.

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10. Government Accountability

In democratic societies, accountability to the people is a core value. Governments, therefore, rely on factual, systematic information to guide decision making.

In the United States, the Federal Statistical System includes 107 agencies in various governmental capacities. There are 13 primary statistical agencies which receive a bulk of federal funding.

Federal statistical agencies are charged with delivering unbiased information to the public, businesses, and governments. Government leaders use these statistics to determine funding allocations and to guide the development of federal policies and programs (source).

Private statistical organizations are also an important component of assuring accountability in government.

Statistica.com, for example, calls itself the “fact destination.” The company supports a variety of research, including public opinion on elected officials as well as policy and procedural issues (source).

OpenGov is an industry-leading company that provides resources for governments to build trust with constituents. Products equip users to present complex reports, engage audiences for feedback and then analyze that engagement (source).

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Careers in Politics That Involve Statistics

Whatever your particular interests related to politics, there is a wide range of political careers that involve statistics in everyday life. For many of these options, having a master’s degree increases your job opportunities and salary potential.

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Political Scientist

The field of political science includes specialties such as policy analyst, political analyst, political consultant, political researcher, and political research scientist (source).

Jobs for political science majors right out of college are often entry-level research positions in politics, government, and nonprofit work (source). Advancement in the field of political science typically requires graduate-level education.

One valuable way to specialize in the field of political science is through advanced study in statistics. Statisticians are problem-solvers in many arenas, including political science. Through quantitative analysis, political scientists study theories, systems, trends, and policies (source).

The job of statistician is a rapidly growing profession with outstanding earnings potential. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for a statistician is $87,780. For statistician jobs in the federal government, that figure jumps to $106,670 (source).

The job “Statistician” is ranked #1 in “Best Business Jobs” and #6 in “100 Best Jobs” by U.S. News & World Report (Source). Working as a statistician in the field of political science is a way to apply analytical skills in an area of personal interests.

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The roles of U.S. diplomats vary significantly, considering the multi-faceted, complex nature of international relations. In whatever specific way a diplomat is representing the interests of the United States, analysis and reporting is part of the job (source).

Career paths for foreign service officers include a political track and a public diplomacy track (source). Political officers focus on analysis and reporting related to international issues, providing information for policymakers. Public diplomacy officers promote international understanding of U.S. policies.

When considering candidates for positions as foreign service officers, the U.S. Department of State considers a wide range of personal qualities and aptitudes. Along with skills like leadership and communication, qualifications include skills in information integration and abilities in quantitative analysis (source).

According to PayScale, the average diplomat salary is $88,670 (source).

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A lobbyist’s purpose is to influence politicians toward the cause they represent, ultimately affecting legislation. For productivity in this work, information is a crucial component of the job. By discovering and presenting useful information such as polls and graphs, the lobbyist may deliver proprietary information that benefits the lobbyist’s interests (source).

To effectively communicate the interest they represent, lobbyists must be skilled in interpreting data. The lobbyist will need to clearly present the views of targeted voting segments, with an understanding of how this relates to potential legislation.

PayScale lists the average lobbyist salary as $73,042 (source).

Your Future in Applied Statistics

Does working with interesting statistics sound like a potential career path for you? Learn more about Michigan Tech’s online MS in Applied Statistics and discover all the possibilities for your future in applying statistics in everyday life.

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