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Employment Numbers Rigged Prior To 2012 Election? The Evidence Doesn’t Show It

unemployment

The final unemployment report before the 2012 election was released on October 5th of that year and it showed the top-line Unemployment Rate dropping below 8% for the first time since Barack Obama had become President, although it also showed that only 114,000 jobs were added during the month of September. Many political commentators, of course, along with the Obama campaign, though, focused on the drop below 8% even though it was clear from the report that this was largely attributable to the fact that so many people had left the labor force. Almost immediately after the numbers were released, conservatives began accusing the Administration of manipulating the figures somehow in an effort to aid the Presidents re-election campaign, which according to some polls at the time at least were allegedly imperiled by a surging Romney campaign. People familiar with how the numbers are compiled, including some conservatives, pushed back on this accusation saying that the alleged evidence cited by some on the right could be completely explained by the manner in which the two different surveys that make up a monthly Jobs Report are conducted. Nonetheless, the conspiracy theory remained out there and, today, it’s gotten new life thanks to a report by New York Post columnist/reporter John Cruedele who is out with a report claiming that Census data used to create the BLS report was manipulated to make the numbers look favorable to the President:

In the home stretch of the 2012 presidential campaign, from August to September, the unemployment rate fell sharply — raising eyebrows from Wall Street to Washington.

The decline — from 8.1 percent in August to 7.8 percent in September — might not have been all it seemed. The numbers, according to a reliable source, were manipulated.

And the Census Bureau, which does the unemployment survey, knew it.

Just two years before the presidential election, the Census Bureau had caught an employee fabricating data that went into the unemployment report, which is one of the most closely watched measures of the economy.

And a knowledgeable source says the deception went beyond that one employee — that it escalated at the time President Obama was seeking reelection in 2012 and continues today.

“He’s not the only one,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous for now but is willing to talk with the Labor Department and Congress if asked.

The Census employee caught faking the results is Julius Buckmon, according to confidential Census documents obtained by The Post. Buckmon told me in an interview this past weekend that he was told to make up information by higher-ups at Census.

As a preliminary point, it’s important to note that Cruedele doesn’t say anywhere in his report that the manipulation has either widespread, that it came on direction from someone connected to the White House or the Obama campaign, or that it had any kind of ideological motivation to it. Instead, if anything, he seems to be pointing to what may be an institutional problem in the Census Department:

Ironically, it was Labor’s demanding standards that left the door open to manipulation.

Labor requires Census to achieve a 90 percent success rate on its interviews — meaning it needed to reach 9 out of 10 households targeted and report back on their jobs status.

Census currently has six regions from which surveys are conducted. The New York and Philadelphia regions, I’m told, had been coming up short of the 90 percent.

Philadelphia filled the gap with fake interviews.

“It was a phone conversation — I forget the exact words — but it was, ‘Go ahead and fabricate it’ to make it what it was,” Buckmon told me.

Census, under contract from the Labor Department, conducts the household survey used to tabulate the unemployment rate.

Interviews with some 60,000 household go into each month’s jobless number, which currently stands at 7.3 percent. Since this is considered a scientific poll, each one of the households interviewed represents 5,000 homes in the US.

Buckmon, it turns out, was a very ambitious employee. He conducted three times as many household interviews as his peers, my source said.

By making up survey results — and, essentially, creating people out of thin air and giving them jobs — Buckmon’s actions could have lowered the jobless rate.

Buckmon said he filled out surveys for people he couldn’t reach by phone or who didn’t answer their doors.

But, Buckmon says, he was never told how to answer the questions about whether these nonexistent people were employed or not, looking for work, or have given up.

Quite obviously the report has gotten considerable attention in the conservative blogosphere, and it’s easy to see how this could eventually become the kind of scandal that ended up before a House Subcommittee in the same manner that things like the Fast & Furious gun running story, the Behghazi attack, and the IRS targeting story have. Indeed, I’d almost guarantee that this is what’s going to happen eventually. Looking at the report in more detail, however, it’s quite apparent that there’s a lot less here than the Post headline, and much of the blog coverage, would have you believe, something that both Business Insider’s Joe Weisenthal and James Pethokoukis of the conservative American Enterprise Institute have pointed out today.

For example, the Post report indicates that this entire story about possible fabrication of census data actually goes back to 2010, two years before the Presidential election. This suggests that the allegations, if true, are more about institutional problems at the Census Department than some kind of conspiracy to aid the Obama campaign. Second, Second, as Weisenthal notes, to the extent that this Census employee Buckmon that is quoted as a source is claiming he was pressured, it was a pressure to produce reports, not a pressure to produce reports saying that he had interviewed people who were employed. He could’ve just as easily handed in reports saying, falsely, that he had talked to people who reported that they were unemployed. Third, as both Weisenthal and Pethokoukis point out, the problem of under-reporting that led to pressure from the Labor Department was apparently limited to New York and Philadelphia, but the figures for those areas for September 2012 actually show the unemployment rate rising rather than falling, so it’s unclear how this could have led to the national rate falling by 0.2%. Finally, as Weisenthal points out, while the September 2012 report seemed odd at the time, it was in fact overall consistent with how unemployment has trended in the year that has followed.

National Review’s Jim Geraghty also passes along an email from a reader with experience in the Census Department who makes this point:

It is true that the vast majority of Census employees support Obama but I have a hard time believing that they would risk their careers by deliberately manipulating the employment data. It is true that interviewers sometimes submit fake completed interviews (curbstoning) but this is usually due to pressures to meet a target of completed interviews or laziness or both. Even if there was a coordinated conspiracy to fake the unemployment numbers, doing it by having a lot of interviewers fake interviews seems to be an inefficient and risky way to do it.

Unless there is a lot more information out there that hasn’t been reported I would not believe this story

Pethokoukis concludes his post with the comment that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” and he’s absolutely correct. The suggestion that government data was being manipulated for political advantage is indeed a serious one, but it’s also so extraordinary that there has to be more evidence to support it than what the New York  Post has provided. There is, perhaps, something to be concerned about in the idea that Census workers are, under pressure to produce results, making up data, of course. This is especially true given that this data is relied upon in a number of economic sectors, and it ought to be investigated dispassionately rather than being jumped upon as evidence of a conspiracy that probably doesn’t exist. Of course, given the nature of contemporary American politics, we all know that isn’t likely to happen.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. KK says:

    Watching you guys squirm your way through labored and complicated explainations for the graff and incompetence of this administration would be funny if it was so bad that we’re suffering Obama’s policies.

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  2. CB says:

    …thanks to a report by New York Post…

    Aaaaaand scene.

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  3. CB says:

    @KK:

    You won’t find (m)any blind sychophants here. Almost everyone would concede that he’s been less than great.

    What does that have to do with stupid claims that the BLS manufactured statistics?

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  4. Scott O says:

    figures for those areas for September 2012 actually show the unemployment rate rising rather than falling

    So the Census Bureau was manipulating the results to help Romney.

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  5. John Peabody says:

    “If you want to quote that your mother loves you, get a second source”, is what journalists learn. So let’s apply that to these ‘smoking gun!’ stories. Give the other side 24 hours to poke at it. Sometimes it will stand, sometimes it won’t. Just because the 2nd day articles may not match the first days’ doesn’t mean that they are blatantly lying.

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  6. KK says:

    Anyone who understands the Labor Force Participation Rate already saw claims like this coming down the pipeline. The unemployment rate is a politically rigged and totally fake economic indicator which makes it ripe for manipulation.

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  7. Console says:

    @KK:

    The unemployment rate is what it is. There’s what? Seven different measures? If you want to bitch about the U4 rate, then it’s not like there aren’t other measurements that include broader measures.

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  8. Console says:

    And seriously, how the hell can a group of people that seem to be dedicated to the proposition that demographics will doom social security/medicare be bewildered at the idea of labor force participation declining from its peak.

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  9. Jr says:

    GOP, you lost get over it.

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  10. Todd says:

    Journalism is dead.

    Print first, verify later.

    No penalty at all for being wrong.

    Pissed off people share articles on Facebook and Twitter. The more more hyperbolic the BS, the more incensed they get, and the more people they tell.

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  11. Pinky says:

    A quick look around the conservative blogosphere, and I’m not seeing this story being pushed hard anywhere but Hot Air. A couple of sites have it, including Drudge, but as Doug notes, National Review and AEI aren’t supporting it. So predictions of a right-wing explosion might have been premature.

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  12. Ben says:

    the problem of under-reporting that led to pressure from the Labor Department was apparently limited to New York and Philadelphia, but the figures for those areas for September 2012 actually show the unemployment rate rising rather than falling, so it’s unclear how this could have led to the national rate falling by 0.2%.

    This right here is all that had to be said. The guy they’re trotting out as proof that Obama rigged the numbers for the election actually worked in an area that hurt Obama. Discussion should be over at this point. But I know it won’t be.

    Sigh.

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  13. James says:

    I’m shocked. Stunned. Flabbergasted.

    People read the New York Post?

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  14. al-Ameda says:

    Pethokoukis concludes his post with the comment that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” and he’s absolutely correct. The suggestion that government data was being manipulated for political advantage is indeed a serious one, but it’s also so extraordinary that there has to be more evidence to support it than what the New York Post has provided

    The New York Post? Welcome aboard the Conspiracy Bus. There is no end to the conspiracy mongering when it comes to opponents of the Obama Administration. Who can be surprised, it is who we are today.

    We have, since 2009, experienced a very modest economic recovery, and unemployment has consistently declining at a very slow rate. The numbers reflect that. It seems to me that is the administration was going to doctor the numbers we’d have better numbers than we have now.

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  15. KK says:

    There is a level of spin to protect the president going on these days that trumps the way the right protected Bush. I will never, ever again take seriously any Democrat that tells me I need to be critical of Republican leaders. There is simply not a shred of credibility left on the Left. It’s gotten to the point where one gets the impression Liberals are spinning so hard not to protect Obama but the very credibility of the ideology that drives thier support for Obama.

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  16. Fog says:

    KK: Thinking is hard. So is English. Best not go there.
    Here. You dropped this. K

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  17. Gustopher says:

    So, the Republicans lied — they just made up a fake controversy. That’s what they do. Why does anyone take their outrage du jour seriously?

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  18. al-Ameda says:

    @KK:

    I will never, ever again take seriously any Democrat that tells me I need to be critical of Republican leaders.

    Not that you ever did, anyway.

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  19. Pinky says:

    @Gustopher: Where did the Republicans lie? There’s one news story in the Post.

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  20. Pinky says:

    @Gustopher: No, wait a second. I don’t want to just throw a one-off at your comment. It really needs to be looked at.

    A reporter has one source and on the basis of it implies that there was a lot of shaky accounting going on. We’ll see if he’s right, but he definitely jumped the gun. You have one report and on the basis of that flat-out say that the Republicans lie. How is what you’re doing any better? Less coverage to your comment, sure, but it’s more extreme, and it’s yellow commenting in criticism of yellow journalism, which makes it just unnerving. As of this moment, your comments have less credibility than the NY Post.

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  21. CB says:

    @Pinky:

    As of this moment, your comments have less credibility than the NY Post.

    That is not a thing that is possible.

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  22. KM says:

    Here’s a better question – what in the world makes them think that a single jobs report is what influenced people to vote the way they did? Really? For Joe Blow American?

    You know what else happened in Oct? Sandy. Syria. The beginnings of the Congressional probe into Benghazi. Romney and the voting machines came up. Those 6 scientists in Italy got screwed by anti-Science morons over the earthquake. Disney purchased Lucasfilm! … ok that last one was for a laugh but seriously, with the average voter’s attention span, what in the world makes them think this had influence? Would this have even pinged their radar?

    Fake controversy – fake problem. But even if it was one, again the average voter neither knows nor cares about this other then in the vaguest of terms. If you really think a jobs report swung significant voters Obama’s way, they probably weren’t your votes to begin with.

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  23. Ben says:

    @Pinky:

    The thing is, they’re using this guy to make an implication, but when you look at the actual numbers, then the implication doesn’t follow. He made up a bunch of survey answers. The data for his area in that timeframe show generally worse data for Obama than the rest of the country. If anything, it should lead to an implication that he was trying to swing the election to Romney.

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  24. edmondo says:

    You won’t find (m)any blind sychophants here.

    You must be reading a different website than most of us.

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  25. CB says:

    @edmondo:

    Nope, outside of the usual suspects, most commenters here are pretty sharp (if overwhelmingly leftish). Ive seen more than a few regular lefties let the admin have it lately. But whatever. Different people see things differently, news at 11.

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  26. al-Ameda says:

    @edmondo:

    You must be reading a different website than most of us.

    He probably visited Red State.

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  27. Jc says:

    Is this OTB or WND? Why are you even entertaining this jibberish nonsense?

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  28. KK says:

    Ima agree that the jury is still out on the charges made in the referenced article. Time will in fact tell if there is any validity to these accusations.

    But is anyone here still making the case that the precipitous decline in jobs from 2008/09 has been stopped? A quick comparison of the Unemployment rate to the Labor Force Participation rate tells a story that is in direct opposition to the rosy reviews of the economy that we continue to receive from the Administration and the media.

    Unemployment rate: http://data.bls.gov/pdq/SurveyOutputServlet

    Labor force Participation rate: http://data.bls.gov/pdq/SurveyOutputServlet

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  29. C. Clavin says:

    @Pinky:
    .

    You have one report and on the basis of that flat-out say that the Republicans lie.

    Oh c’mon…Iraq, Death Panels, Fox News, Paul Ryan ‘s acceptance speech, Obama Apologizing for America, every comment Jenos types.
    Any other questions?

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  30. C. Clavin says:

    @C. Clavin:
    Acorn. Shirley Sherrod. Watergate.
    I could do this all night.

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  31. C. Clavin says:

    @C. Clavin:
    Enhanced Interrogation…that’s a good one…which led to; Torture Got Bin Laden.

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  32. C. Clavin says:

    @C. Clavin:
    The Surge Worked…another classic lie.

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  33. C. Clavin says:

    @KK:
    So then you are dead set against the austerity program we’re on?

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  34. Pinky says:

    @C. Clavin: Cliffy, I think it’s funny that the only person who replies to you anymore is you. But I’m going to break the pattern.

    Gustopher said.

    So, the Republicans lied — they just made up a fake controversy. That’s what they do. Why does anyone take their outrage du jour seriously?

    He was clearly referring to the current bit of news, confusing one journalist at the NYPost with “the Republicans” and a heavy inference story with a lie. If I’m wrong on my inferences, please let me know. If Cruedele does have magical powers that make every Republican willingly lie by writing an under-sourced story, you could demonstrate that. But the one thing you can’t do is defend Gustopher by listing other lies that Republicans have made. That’s the old Chicago PD thinking: he may not be guilty of this one, but he belongs in prison.

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  35. de stijl says:

    @KK:

    I will never, ever again take seriously any Democrat that tells me I need to be critical of Republican leaders.

    So, should Democrats take a Republican seriously if they ask the same of them? If yes, why?

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  36. C. Clavin says:
  37. de stijl says:

    The good news is that this will get in front of the relevant House committee to determine whether there is a problem and how best to address it so it does not happen in the future.

    The great news is that it will be Darrell “the boy who cried wolf” Issa’s House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Guaranteed he is going to botch the political witch hunt component of the investigation in a hilariously inept manner.

    Those partial transcripts aren’t going to release themselves now, are they? “Let’s see, which journalists have I not burned yet?” he’s thinking. I swear that he has to be a secret Democratic plant.

    Dude makes Dan Burton look like Sam Ervin.

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  38. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Pinky:

    He was clearly referring to the current bit of news, confusing one journalist at the NYPost with “the Republicans” and a heavy inference story with a lie.

    Pinky, the only way you can make that statement is by removing the “current story” from all context, namely 2012 and the election that year. This is not current news. This is a rehash of a Republican smear from that election. And not even a very good rehash. It is propaganda masquerading as news.

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  39. Scott says:

    @Pinky: Your right, it apparently is already out of the news cycle. Replaced by the latest BS outrage: Removing “under God” from the Gettysburg Address.

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  40. Pinky says:

    @Scott:We’ll see which lasts longer, blindered Republicans calling it a scandal or blindered Democrats complaining that blindered Republicans call it a scandal.

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  41. Kari Q says:

    I remember hearing Romney supporters before the election heavily implying that the employment data was faked, and I had to laugh at them. If there’s one thing that people don’t need the government to tell them it’s whether or not they have a job, or if their family, friends, and neighbors have jobs. They can tell if things are getting better or not. The information provided by the BLS is useful for economists and those of us (a small percentage of the population) who are more interested in the macro than the micro data. The rest of the population decides how the economy is doing based on how their own personal economic situation feels.

    Even if the government had manipulated the data (which they didn’t) it would have had no impact on the outcome of the election.

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  42. KK says:

    @Kari Q: Many people are feeling the affects that are revealed in the Labor Force Participation rate. I know a large number of people that are 3 and even 4 years into unemployment. I have got to believe that the 10 million people that have left the workforce since Obama took office did not all do so because they retired or to start businesses because other data, namely savings and the lack of growth in businesses tells me so.

    So that’s great that you are doing fine Kari. But the majority of the country is acting a lot like they did before Jimmy Carter lost re-election. It’s only too bad that this time the real pain of this Presidency did not begin to truly come out until after he was re-elected.

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  43. KK says:

    @Kari Q: “Even if the government had manipulated the data it would have had no impact on the outcome of the election.”

    You obviously have far lower standards for government that I and the rest of America do.

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  44. Kari Q says:

    @KK:

    I don’t think that you read what I wrote at all. I said that people judge the strength of the economy based on their own personal situation and that of those they know. You prove my point by talking about the people you know who are out of work. For you, labor force participation information, at best, confirms what you already know from your own personal knowledge. Nothing the government puts out in the form of statistics or overall economic data is going to convince you otherwise. That just proves my point: manipulating the employment data is stupid and pointless.

    @KK:

    “Even if the government had manipulated the data it would have had no impact on the outcome of the election.”

    It is poor etiquette to edit someone’s comments without indicating you have done so.

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  45. Kari Q says:

    Oh, and we’ve talked about the labor force participation numbers before. The decline is partially due to demographic factors (baby boomers reaching retirement age), partially because young people are continuing their education longer, and partially due to the economic downturn. I’ve pointed to this article from Calculated Risk before, which discusses the reasons for the decline in economic participation.

    The decline in the labor force participation rate among the key working demographic (25-54 year olds) is actually a long-term trend.

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  46. SAS says:

    I am still trying to figure out why people believe any of these pre-election ‘scandals’ would have swayed the results.

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