How to Win Political Debates with Data Visualization

This post probably won't help you reach Obama's level, but perhaps will give you some idea how data visualization, among other tools, helped him get there. Every day new federal and local bills are being proposed and discussed in countries all over the world. The parties involved, more often than not, rely on statistics, cold hard facts and figures, to convince the people to support their stance. It's relatively safe to say that citing numbers, facts, statistics (anticipated cost, how much tax you will save as an individual, how many jobs will be created) adds credibility and weight to an argument. However, lack of surrounding background information and a poorly demonstrated context, can leave listeners or readers somewhat confused. In some cases, the introduction of figures to a debate can do more harm than good, if the subject matter is already complicated enough to understand.

One way to try and avoid this confusion is through the use of good data visualization. A well-presented chart can be a hundred times more effective than a list of numbers at putting a message across, and often much easier for people to process, spot trends and generally understand.

But the data visualization on its own is not sufficient, (we are speaking particularly about political arguments here). Normally accompanied by a coordinated multi-channel approach, that promotes comprehension as well as distribution of the information, data visualization in politics can be the difference between winning a vote and not!

Now time for some examples. This multi-channel approach was recently employed by Organizing for America's (OFA) in its efforts to build up support for President Obama around the one-year anniversary of his $787 billion plans to combat national unemployment.

While the Republicans were busy pointing out that the country's national unemployment rate was almost at 10% of the population as proof that the stimulus had failed to create employment opportunities and revive the economy, OFA - an arm of the Democratic National Committee - launched a coordinated campaign to persuade Americans that President Obama's administration had put the country back on a "Road to Recovery".

Here you can see the visualization that they used to present the proof to the public:

Road To Recovery Visualization
Road To Recovery Visualization

The chart shows US job loss figures between December 2007 and January 2010. This enabled people to compare the number of jobs lost during President Obama's first year in office with the number of jobs lost during President Bush's last year in office.

On top of this, OFA released an accompanying video to help illustrate the points made in the data visualization and to ensure the public fully understood the message the OFA were trying to portray. The video is below.

The video was successful in clearly demonstrating that the unemployment situation under the Obama adminstration was a lot healthier than that under the previous Bush administration. The video aimed to inform and convince the people of America that the unemployed are now, because of Obama's plans, receiving government aid. If the chart itself didn't do enough to make the case for OFA, the video certainly helped to convince more people of the stance being presented.

Republicans have also taken advantage of the power of strong data visualization to get their point across. One of the best examples is the House GOP's Health Care Maze (see below).

GOP's Health Care Maze
GOP's Health Care Maze

This infographic was at least succussful in illustrating the bureaucratic complexity evident in the House Democrats' proposed health care legislation. While this chart effectively showed that the proposed legislation would be complex and messy, Organizing for America's multi-channel execution of the data visualization chart succeeded in making the information widespread, and in engaging its supporters to help deliver the content even further and show strong support for President Obama.

Underlying message

So what can you take away from these examples? That any organization - whether it is political in nature or not - that seeks to convince its audience (whether it be your customers, your colleagues, your CEO..) of something, can benefit from strong data visualization. Accompanied by solid supporting materials (presentations, videos, reports..), this can reinforce the message you are trying to portray and can no doubt set you up for successful outcomes.