Numbers Geek
“Why do you feel the need to lie?” An attendee at the Politicon in L.A. yells at conservative political commentator Ann Coulter, as audience members capture the scene. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

LOS ANGELES — America is deeply divided. People talk about finding common ground, but it seems to rarely happen. In fact, a lot of our discourse seems designed to divide us.

“There is an element on the left, whether it’s during the Cold War, whether it’s over communism, they just hate America,” said Ann Coulter, the conservative political commentator, deriding liberals for their “mob mentality” during a session at the Politicon convention in L.A. this fall.

“How dare you?” an attendee challenged her in response. “That’s all you can do … blame liberals for not being proud Americans.”

This is the state of our national conversation. So what if we started with numbers instead? Would it be possible to use data to establish a common understanding of our most controversial issues, like immigration, healthcare and international trade? Can we find common ground in the numbers, discuss what the numbers should be, then debate how to change them in the future?

Those are the questions at the heart of our new podcast, Numbers Geek, a partnership between GeekWire and USAFacts, the non-partisan, not-for-profit civic data initiative. USAFacts was founded by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who serves as our Resident Numbers Geek on the show, joining us regularly to discuss the numbers behind business, government and sports.

His approach is to look at the country much like a business leader would look at a company, using numbers to understand the state of the operation, including spending and outcomes, and measure progress against a specific set of goals, informed by a larger vision for what we’re trying to accomplish as a country. USAFacts doesn’t take a position on any issues, but it uses the preamble to the U.S. Constitution to establish a set of mission statements for the government, using data to report on spending and outcomes within each of those missions.

So for our first big test on the Numbers Geek podcast, I embarked on a quest — trying to get some of the country’s most polarizing political figures, and their critics, to set aside the rhetoric and focus on numbers instead. The setting was Politicon, a conference held in L.A. every year that brings together people from across the political spectrum.

This year’s conference happened right before the midterm elections. And a lot of it seemed designed to entertain people rather than have a serious discussion about the direction of the country. Sessions frequently devolved into shouting matches. In fact, one panel almost turned into a fight.

Against that backdrop, I wanted to see if numbers could change the tone of the discussion. So for two days, I roamed Politicon with my microphone, wearing my Numbers Geek shirt and carrying my copy of the USAFacts 2018 Annual Report, ready to inform the discussion with government data.

I talked with people ranging from everyday citizens to political strategists, and I asked one question: what are the issues and numbers that matter most to them when it comes to the future of the country?

I jumped into Q&A lines to pose that question to the celebrity panelists, ranging from former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to actor Bradley Whitford (Josh Lyman on the West Wing). I even caught up with Michael Avenatti, lawyer to adult film actress Stormy Daniels, to talk about the numbers in the country that matter to him. (This was before the recent charges of domestic violence against him, and his announcement this week that he won’t be running for president in 2020.)

Over the course of the two days, I engaged in detailed discussions with attendees about the numbers behind health care, immigration, education, the economy, demographics and voter turnout — many of the same topics we’ll explore on future episodes of Numbers Geek.

And many of the numbers surprised people. One example was the percentage of the population that doesn’t have health insurance. The official government number has declined from 16 percent in 2010 to 8.8 percent today, meaning that more than 90 percent of the population has health insurance.

This number is so surprising that some people simply don’t believe it.

“They say that there’s fake news,” said Politicon attendee Marla Schulman, a producer, director and marketer with a background in journalism. “I think we have the fake government.”

In fact, mistrust of government data was a consistent theme from Politicon attendees, in some cases thwarting my efforts to use numbers to inform the conversation. I asked Steve about this after Politicon, while we were behind-the-scenes at an L.A. Clippers game, and he pointed out that government data is compiled not by politicians but by civil servants, doing their best work.

“Look, if people really think there’s a problem, then it’s incumbent on them as citizens to make it a priority to get this stuff right,” he said. “Civil servants in this country really do do a very good and very professional work. And I think people have to really appreciate and recognize that.”

But nowhere was the mistrust of government data more evident than in the “Ask Ann Anything” session at Politicon, a town hall event that was essentially an extended shouting match between Coulter and her critics. This was where I put the power of numbers to the test, jumping into the Q&A line to ask Coulter and moderator Ben Stein about the numbers that matter most to them when they think about the future of the country.

Coulter said she believes the number of undocumented immigrants in the country is 50 million to 60 million people, significantly higher than the government estimates, which have put the total number at 11 million to 12 million for about the last decade.

“Trying to find a parking spot in L.A., I think that’s right,” she joked.

At the high end of the estimate she cited, 60 million people would equal 18 percent of the U.S. population of 325 million. But given all the discussion of illegal immigration in the United States, it’s easy to understand why the government numbers are also difficult to believe. We’ll be exploring this further in an episode of Numbers Geek dedicated to immigration.

Ann Coulter speaks onstage during Politicon 2018 at the Los Angeles Convention Center in California on October 20, 2018. (Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for Politicon)

As you’ll hear in this episode of Numbers Geek, my experiment numbers into the conversation didn’t put an end to the partisanship. Nor did it end the disagreements.

But it did accomplish something else. Later in the day, Politicon attendee Joshua Bermudez found me at Politicon. He’s a producer working on an installment in the documentary series “A Matter of Opinion” with producer Jordan Roberts. He had been in the session with Coulter, and he told me that he was struck by what happened when I asked my question.

“Everybody in the room was yelling until you asked a question about numbers,” he said. “All of a sudden, everyone’s fervor died down just enough for the speaker to talk, for people to listen. Even if it was short lived. It worked. It was magic.”

Politics is like a sport, and it should be like math class, I told him. But the problem is that math class is boring.

“We need to get little more boring,” he said. “Numbers can be sexy. You’ve just got to work a little bit harder to do that. It’s not as easy as getting up and calling people names.”