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Fun With Numbers

Statistics gauge warmth of Utahns' feelings



Poll: Utahns Like Gay People More Than They Like Obama.
—Headline in The Salt Lake Tribune, Aug. 12, 2011 

Everyone is familiar with Mark Twain’s assessment of statistics: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” Whether or not you agree with Twain (or Disraeli or Bill Clinton or Pee-wee Herman or whoever said it), you have to admit that statistics are a lot of fun.

A case in point is the recent statistical comparison between the Barack Obama and gay people. Utahns polled by the Human Rights Campaign reveal that they “have warmer feelings toward gay and lesbian people than they do toward President Barack Obama,” to the tune of 51 percent to 38 percent.

(Statistics are not available on the percentages of those warm feelings: What percentage of those feelings is of a tingly nature? A burning in the bosom? Prickly sensations in the nipple area? How about hot flashes? Or do the warm feelings turn into an erection lasting more than four hours?)

In this season of statistics, along comes another poll with the not so startling news that 71 percent of Utahns disapprove of Barack Obama’s performance (presumably his performance as president, not in more personal spheres of behavior). Subtracting 71 from 100 percent leaves 29 percent of Utahns who approve of Mr. Obama in some form or fashion.

But from the earlier survey, we learn that 38 percent of Utahns experience warm feelings when they summon images of Mr. Obama in sweet sessions of silent thought. We are left, therefore, with a seemingly inexplicable disparity in the numbers. Fully 9 percent more Utahns get tingly thinking of the president than Utahns who merely approve of him.

How to account for this disparity? I consulted several statisticians who assured me that numbers never lie, and that people always do. One can only conclude that the 29 percent who merely approve of Obama are not being entirely forthcoming vis-%uFFFD-vis their feelings about their president. Perhaps they are ashamed to admit to feeling tingly, hot or aroused.

Then what about the 38 percent of Utahns who have warm feelings? Do they merely have warm feelings, or do they also experience sensations of approval? Either way, these Utahns could be telling the truth. It is possible to approve and have warm feelings (having your cake and eating it, too), just as it is possible to not approve and still have warm feelings, particularly as one ascends the arousal scale (eating your cake and feeling guilty about it).

The polls we have been discussing are just two examples of how statistics can be fun for the entire family. We have more fun coming. Pollsters have promised us that they will soon conduct a new poll, full of interesting statistics, on whether Utahns’ 38 percent lukewarm feelings for Mr. Obama would heat up to 51 points in the event they found out he was gay instead of being an alien from Kenya or outer space.

Just as instructive as the warm feelings statistics and the approval statistics are some other recent statistics. I’m referring to a Salt Lake Tribune poll that shows Brother Romney administering an old-fashioned shellacking to his distant cousin Brother Huntsman. According to statistics from the Trib poll, Utah Republicans (a redundant description) favor Romney 71 percent to 13 percent.

This is astonishing. Consider that as governor, Huntsman Jr. racked up approval ratings upward of 90 percent. Only when he came out for civil unions did he lose a few percentage points, which is somewhat baffling given the warm feelings 51 percent of Utahns have towards gay people. Nevertheless, I suspect the dismal percentages stem from his association with Obama, who, you remember, is less popular than gay people among Utahns.

Further proof of the Huntsman/Obama correlation comes in the form of the magic number 71. This is the percentage of Utahns who have warmer feelings for Romney, compared to Huntsman. And 71, you remember, is the percentage of Utahns who disapprove of Obama, in spite of warm feelings on the part of 38 percent of our citizens.

The numbers do not lie. But beyond the numbers is the curious fact that Utahns have such warm feelings for Romney, a non-Utahn, and such cold feelings for Huntsman, a true son of Utah, despite his fancy manners. The explanation lies in the hard fact that Mit has more burning in his bosom than his fellow Mormon: Upstart apostles can’t compete with anointed prophets.