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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Unreported Stats

Q: What’s the deal with Prof. Joseph Olson’s “unreported stats” from the 2008 election?

A: This chain e-mail is a hoax. The “statistics” are grossly incorrect, and Prof. Olson says he didn’t write it.

Full Question

Is this true?


Some unreported stats about the 2008 election

Professor Joseph Olson of Hemline University School of Law, St. Paul, Minnesota, points out some interesting facts concerning the 2008 Presidential election:

-Number of States won by: Democrats: 20; Republicans: 30

-Square miles of land won by: Democrats: 580,000; Republicans: 2,427,000

-Population of counties won by: Democrats: 127 million; Republicans: 143 million

-Murder rate per 100,000 residents in counties won by: Democrats: 13.2; Republicans: 2.1

Professor Olson adds: “In aggregate, the map of the territory Republican won was mostly the land owned by the taxpaying citizens. Democrat territory mostly encompassed those citizens living in rented or government-owned tenements and living off various forms of government welfare…”

Olson believes the United States is now somewhere between the “complacency and apathy” phase of Professor Tyler’s definition of democracy, with some forty percent of the nation’s population already having reached the “governmental dependency” phase.

Notice that only in the states of Alaska and Oklahoma: All counties were won by McCain/Palin.

The original posting with this information is below this Newsweek article at this link: http://www.newsweek.com/id/163337.

Full Answer

First, Joseph Olson is a professor at Hamline (not Hemline) University School of Law in St. Paul, Minn. None of what appears in this e-mail was written by him. He has been denying authorship of this old hoax since earlier versions first cropped up after the 2000 election. Most recently he posted a disclaimer about the 2008 version on his university profile page:

Olson: There is an e-mail floating around the internet dealing with the 2008 Obama/McCain election and the 2000 Bush/Gore election, remarks of a Scottish philosopher named Alexander Tyler, etc. Part of it is attributed to me. It is entirely BOGUS as to my authorship. I’ve been trying to kill it since December 2000. For details see: <http://www.snopes.com/politics/quotes/tyler.asp.

More important, the “unreported stats” listed in this e-mail are all wrong:

  • President-elect Barack Obama actually carried 28 states (and the District of Columbia), not 20 as claimed in the message. Sen. John McCain carried only 22 states, not 30.
  • The total area of states won by Obama is actually 1,483,702 square miles, significantly more than the 580,000 stated by the e-mail. McCain’s states have an area of 2,310,315 square miles, not the 2,427,000 claimed.
  • The population of counties carried by Obama is just under 183 million, not the 127 million claimed. McCain carried counties with a total population of just under 119 million, far fewer than claimed in this message.
  • The murder rate for counties carried by Obama was 6.56 per 100,000 inhabitants, less than half the rate claimed in the message. The rate for counties carried by McCain was 3.60 per 100,000, much higher than claimed in the message.

Our Calculations

We calculated county populations and murder rates using official data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s “USA County Data Files.” We obtained nearly complete county-by-county election results from the Web site of University of Michigan professor Mark Newman, who extracted them from USA Today’s election Web site as of Nov. 16. We adjusted these figures only to resolve ties in three counties (more recent figures show two of these counties going for Obama, one for McCain). It is possible that a few counties will change hands when all official results are reported.

Population figures are Census estimates for 2007. Murder rates are calculated from the number of murders and non-negligent homicides by county for 2005, the most recent figures Census provides, and population estimates for 2005.

Origins of a Hoax

This hoax goes back eight years, when an earlier version began to circulate following the bitterly disputed 2000 presidential election. Snopes.com, a site devoted to debunking urban myths, took that one apart at the time, noting that Prof. Olson denied authorship and that some factual claims didn’t check out. A new version went around for a time after the 2004 election, and whoever wrote the 2008 version of the e-mail didn’t even bother to make up new “stats,” but simply substituted the words “Democrats” and “Republicans” where the names “Gore” and “Bush” had appeared.

The origin of the population and square-mile figures used in the 2008 version, in fact, is this USA Today map of the 2000 election results. It shows 143 million people in counties won by George W. Bush and 127 million in counties won by Al Gore, for example. Of course elections are won by electoral votes not counties won. And the fact is that in 2008 the counties carried by Obama were far more populous than those carried by McCain.

The crime figures, however, were no more accurate in the original than in the 2008 version. They were debunked by Snopes which put the actual county-by-county murder rate at 6.5 for counties supporting Gore, in 2000, and 4.1 for counties supporting Bush. Each of those figures is a far cry from the 13.2 and 2.1 figures used in the original 2000 e-mail, and they’re simply repeated in the most recent version and attributed to Obama and McCain counties.

One original note in the 2008 version of the e-mail is the line added at the end: “Notice that only in the states of Alaska and Oklahoma: All counties were won by McCain/Palin.” But even that is a bit misleading. McCain and his vice presidential running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, did win all counties in Oklahoma and did carry the state of Alaska, but Alaska doesn’t tally votes by county.

Where Did It Come From?

References to the original e-mail were spotted as far back as November 2000. Terry Krepel, writing for ConWebWatch, a Web site “dedicated to analysis and critique of conservative ‘new media’,” mentioned two articles that appeared on the news site NewsMax.com in 2000 citing information from the e-mail.

Dave Hamrick, in his article for Georgia’s Fayette Citizen, offers an explanation of how Prof. Olson’s name came to be tied to the bogus murder rate figures. He asked Olson about them and discovered that the e-mail wasn’t Olson’s work:

Hamrick, Jan. 17, 2001: But in response to my e-mail, Olson said the “research” was attributed to him erroneously. He said it came from a Sheriff Jay Printz in Montana. I e-mailed Sheriff Printz, and guess what? He didn’t do the research either, and didn’t remember who had e-mailed it to him.

In other words, he got the same legend e-mailed to him and passed it on to Olson without checking it out, and when Olson passed it on, someone thought it sounded better if a law professor had done the research, and so it grew.

Who knows where it originally came from, but it’s just not true. We can’t be certain with whom, or precisely when, the message originated, but Hamrick’s observation, that Olson forwarded a version of the e-mail he had received, may explain how Olson’s name became attached to it.

-D’Angelo Gore and Brooks Jackson


Snopes.com. “The Fall of the Athenian Republic,” 18 Dec. 2008.

Kreppel, Terry. “NewsMax’s Urban Legend.” ConWebWatch, 7 April 2004.

Hardy, David. “Request regarding Joe Olson quotation.” Of Arms & Law (Weblog), 1 Oct. 2006.

Hamrick, Dave. “Don’t believe, or pass on, all you read.” Fayette Citizen, 17 Jan. 2001.