Bad Journalism I Can Sort of Believe In

Obama-McCain by county, with sizes distorted to reflect county population.

Obama-McCain by county, with sizes distorted to reflect county population.

Brad Heath did a USA Today article yesterday headlined “Billions in aid go to areas that backed Obama in ’08”. The insinuation of the piece is that the stimulus bill’s funding streams are being artfully manipulated or something to disproportionately direct resources toward Obama-loving constituencies. As Conor Clarke notes, this is basically nonsense:

And about that factual content: The Heath piece basically says (1) counties that voted for Obama get more money than counties that voted for McCain; (2) pretty much all of this money “has followed a well-worn path … guided by formulas that have been in place for decades and leave little room for manipulation.” There is no theory presented for how the spending could have been manipulated.

The article concludes by noting that “From 2005 through 2007, the counties that later voted for Obama collected about 50% more government aid than those that supported McCain, according to spending reports from the U.S. Census Bureau.” Yikes! Either that completely destroys the premise of the article, or this pro-Obama conspiracy runs far deeper than even USA Today can imagine…

The secret to the riddle seems to be that areas that benefit from federal spending formulae tend to support the Democrats. Not as a result of short-term fluctuations in voting patterns or federal spending levels, but as a structural element of American politics.

That said, this is the sort of thing that I’m glad people are looking into. Politicians obviously are cognizant of the fact that measures may or may not direct funds to their supporters. But it would be nice to see it done in a less sloppy manner. For one thing, though the press likes to talk a lot about who’s the president and who might be president, when it comes to the details of domestic policy the authority lies almost entirely with congress. Obviously, there’s substantial overlap between the areas that voted for Obama and the areas that elected a Democratic member of congress. But you’d probably get a more enlightening result if you specifically zeroed in on the congressional issue. Or maybe even looked at particular members of congress. Is what was done unusually favorable to David Obey’s constituents relative to other plausible opportunities? What was the impact of the changes forced by centrist senators?