47 (percent): A prime number in politics and a whole lot else


McClatchy Newspapers

What’s up with the number 47?

It’s been a frequent figure in the presidential campaign.

Mitt Romney said in a secretly recorded speech to wealthy donors that 47 percent of Americans – in his words, supporters of President Barack Obama – don’t pay income taxes, feel they deserve government handouts and don’t take responsibility for their lives.

Obama has said that Massachusetts ranked 47th in job creation when Romney was governor.

Those two things may not be entirely true, but these things are:

Obama was 47 when he took the oath of office in 2009.

His birthplace of Hawaii is 47th in land area.

His vice president, Joe Biden, is the 47th to hold that office.

Romney was born in 1947, and he was 47 when he challenged the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts in 1994 (and 47 plus 47 equals 94).

A Gallup national poll taken this week has Romney up over Obama 49-47 percent. A Pew survey that also shows Romney leading was taken – get this – on Oct. 4-7.

State voter ID laws have been a big flashpoint this year, 47 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Obama’s “Buffett Rule” would raise $47 billion over 10 years by collecting a minimum 30 percent tax on the highest incomes.

You can become a millionaire like Romney by playing Classic Lotto 47 in Michigan, the state where he was born and his father was governor and also ran a car company.

But it isn’t just presidential politics:

The Bible credits Jesus with 47 miracles.

The Declaration of Independence has 47 sentences.

There are 47 strings on a concert harp.

The number also figures into recent scandals. British police have arrested 47 people in the News Corp. phone-hacking scandal. A Secret Service agent created an international incident when he got into an argument with a Colombian prostitute over $47.

It wasn’t the cab fare.

Some people are convinced that 47 is the quintessential random number. So what exactly is the significance?

Absolutely nothing, said David Banks, a professor in the department of statistical sciences at Duke University. Banks called it an example of “attention bias.”

“Suppose you happen to see two four-leaf clovers in one day, so you see a third clover and you think it is amazing,” Banks said. “It’s not that the day is any different, you were just paying more attention.”

But 47’s a prime number. Surely that means something.

“There’s nothing special about 47 that I’m aware of,” Banks said. “The fact that it’s prime is incidental, not relevant.”

Don’t tell that to alumni of Pomona College, in Claremont, Calif. On the 1,500-student campus near Los Angeles, 47 is the magic number.

“A couple of students decided to do this tongue-in-cheek project to prove the number 47 is more frequently recurrent in nature than any other number,” said Mark Wood, senior director of communications.

They found more than they expected: Pomona College is on Exit 47 from the San Bernardino Freeway, the top row of an organ on campus has 47 pipes, and 47 students were enrolled at Pomona at the time of its first graduating class in 1894 (there’s 94 again).

But back to the campaign for a second.

Florida’s 29 electoral votes and Ohio’s 18 could add up to victory for Obama or Romney. Do the math.

Email: ctate@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @tatecurtis

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