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The 2014 Ontario election campaign offers a number of teachable moments concerning numbers. (I will let you form your own opinion on what political lesson to draw from what event.) Elections matter to people interested in the real estate business because achieving nearly anything in real estate involves working with one or more levels of government. 

The most obvious moment might be the criticism that the PC campaign does not know how to add. One big mistake was to double-count some job numbers. Some other numbers that should not have been added together were (e.g. adding the number of apples and the number of oranges and the number of grapes to report on a “number of pieces of fruit”). It appears as though the PCs did not subtract the layoffs of 100,000 public servants/bureaucrats or, as noted in the Leader’s Debate, account for the fact that those jobs on the public payroll would be replaced by contract workers (still paid for by tax payers).

Even before checking the arithmetic or the logic of a policy, one needs to listen carefully; I have learned that one always needs to be careful with political numbers: e.g. using political math, 100 jobs for 10 years is equivalent to 1000 jobs for 1 year. Or, using political math, a reduction of $10 million over 100 years is either a “billion dollar slashing” in public spending or a minor adjustment in priorities.

Having a good number sense is instructive in other ways also. For example, political polls make for wonderful news stories: there is always a new poll and randomness in the sampling means something is always changing. Smart readers pay attention to the reported “margin of error” or “confidence interval” (e.g. “this result is believed to be accurate +/- 3.2 percentage points 19 times out of 20”).

This simplistic perspective is changing. First, because polls failed to predict some recent elections within the margin of error. Second, because advances in data and computer software affect how deeply politicians dig into the data using geographic information systems.

The truly number-savvy are getting closer to answering the real question of every election: how many seats will be won? Nate Silver made many old-style politicians unhappy in the 2012 US presidential election by saying the Mitt Romney has little chance of winning weeks before the vote was held. (He worked with data provided by others and not the actual vote, but most of the media were focusing share of popular opinion).

In Ontario, the 308 website is trying to do the same thing. It also shows that geographic concentration of votes means that the fight for seats is not province-wide. It appears that the popular vote is close only in the 905 region (Northern Ontario is also up for grabs but has few seats). Number sense shows up in 308’s methodological choices.

I started this post by noting that it helps to have a good sense of numbers. As a way of showing the new power of numbers, it may be best to end with a link to a long video showing a leading old-style U.S. politician trying to dispute a decision when his candidate was losing.