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“The Pollsters Are Biased” Is the New “The Reporters Are Biased”

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Brian Snyder / Reuters - Susan Walsh / AP

You’re entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts; that political dictum was coined by the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, because he was no fun. Well, good news, folks! Now you can have your own facts! Even better, when it comes to campaign polls you don’t like, you can now have your own numbers!

The concept / conspiracy theory that election polling this year is “skewed” toward oversampling Democratic voters–meaning they give falsely strong results for Obama–has, through social media and the Drudge Report, reached full-on Internet meme status. (Go on Twitter after any major poll release, search for “Obama poll” or “Romney poll” and watch your screen fill with disgruntled amateur statisticians muttering about “D +9 sampling.”) And now the polling conspiracists have their own website, UnSkewedPolls.com, which essentially takes existing polls and changes the numbers so that Mitt Romney is winning them.

Well, there’s more to it than that—not a lot more, but more. The idea behind UnSkewedPolls.com is that there should be a far greater ratio of Republicans to Democrats in the electorate today than voters are telling pollsters that there is. The site takes data from major public polls, opens them up, and recalculates the percentages based on these much-more-GOP-friendly assumptions. In the RealClearPolitics average of national polls this morning, as I write this, Barack Obama leads by 3.7%. In the world of UnSkewedPolls.com, Romney is currently up by 7.8%. Click, tap–hello, landslide!

People more astute politically or accomplished at statistics than I can better detail the problems with this approach. (To take just one example, even if you accept this site’s premise, it’s applying the same recalculating method to polls with different methodologies—peeling oranges like apples.) But the mere fact that this mindset has developed, has quickly spread and has become the current weapon of choice for mau-mauing election coverage on behalf of an aggrieved party says something about how hospitable political culture has become to conspiracies.

Certainly polls can be wrong. They can be wrong en masse. (I won’t, however, cite exit-polling foulups like those in 2000 and 2004; those are a different type of survey than pre-election polling.) They can even, conceivably, be wrong en masse in the same direction. And it’s absolutely true that certain pollsters can have a “house effect” that tends more Republican or Democrat–which is exactly why sites like RealClearPolitics average out all the polls, and stat gurus like the brilliant Nate Silver account for the leans of various pollsters in their forecasts.

But consider what the “polls are biased” meme asks us to believe. That dozens of national and local polls are deliberately skewing their results to find a greater proportion of Democratic voters than there are. (Not only that, but the private campaign polling that Republicans themselves say bodes poorly for Romney is also biased for Obama!) And/or: voters themselves are—from guilt? political correctness? peer pressure?—reporting themselves as identifying Democratic more than they actually do. Evidently they didn’t do this in 2008, at the apex of Obama-mania–else the pre-election polling would have shown Obama with a 20% blowout lead–but they’re in the tank now, in concert–all of them.

Independent polling firms. Educational institutions. Local media. National media. The Wall Street Journal and Fox News—that’s right, Rupert Murdoch’s media properties are in there lifting away to give Obama a second term! What’s more, they’re all knowingly, erroneously reporting results that not only can be, but by definition will be, refuted by vote returns. Media outlets that rely on polls for credibility, pollsters that rely on accuracy for their very businesses’ existence–they’re ready to blow it all in a few weeks just to give Obama four more years.

Except—aha!—there is of course a way around this argument. Suppose by some chance the results of these “skewed” polls prove right on election day. How do we know that the skewing didn’t influence the result? That a drumbeat of positive polls for Obama didn’t brainwash voters into jumping the bandwagon, dry up campaign donations, depress Republican turnout? You call it an accurate poll? I call it a self-fulfilling prophecy! The game is rigged, my friend!

That’s why this sort of thinking is so popular, why it spreads so easily and why, apparently, no one in America will ever again believe that they fairly lost a hotly contested major election. This kind of bias charge is not just a willful single belief—it’s a totalizing mindset, in which any proof to the contrary can be jiu-jitsued into proof that the conspiracy is working.

Whatever Moynihan once said, the way it works now, you don’t need to have your own opinions or your own facts. As long as you have your own all-encompassing theory of mass brainwashing, the opinions and facts that you want will supply themselves.

[Update] Here, my standard disclosure: I voted for Obama in ’08 and plan to do so again in ’12. To paraphrase Walter Mondale: most people who write about politics have voting preferences—the difference is they won’t tell you theirs and I just did. To read my fuller thoughts on political writing and disclosure, click here.

15 comments
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KatMan
KatMan

Almost EVERY American is biased against the republicans and their agenda to rule the world on our dime. It's the fact, Jack. Reaganomics = Marxism + FAILURE!!!!

The TRUTH is that the rich do not and can not consume in suficient quantity to carry the American economy much less that of the world. It has nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with grade school mathmatics. That is the reason democrats want to redistribute or spread the wealth to allow a greater number of consumers to purchase products they require rather than waiting for the wealthy to desire something they might want to spend their wealth upon.

 The moral of this story is that you will starve the slaves if you keep them waiting for your desire to feed their children so they will take up arms and eat YOU just as the radical have nothing Muslims are eating their rulers and wealthy TODAY. When all have something to lose they seldom will risk it for something worse than they have now! That is the real world Mr. Romney.

southernbell52
southernbell52

The idea that the MSM is biased toward Democrats would make me laugh if it wasn't so depressing.

If a Democrat had conducted his/her campaign as poorly as Romney has, there would be very few Very Important Media persons, such as Jon Meacham, insisting that the race wasn't over. They would be proclaiming that the fat lady had sung as she stuck a fork in the corpse.

For complicated reasons, the MSM tends to give Republicans the benefit of the doubt. And in the end they have enabled the Republicans to spawn and spew some truly awful nonsense.

David Brooks has a column in the NYT today about conservatism. And the media's being soft on Republicans is one reason there is so little conservatism out there that is geared toward lifting up society as a whole.

baxters
baxters

Regardless, most polls are showing the two candidates within a few points of each other. The news should be "Why is the Obama campaign failing so badly?" With 4 years in office, people know who he is. With the press going out of its way to demonize Romney for every word he ever said or didn't say, Obama still can't claim victory. Why is that? Could it be that Americans are looking for a President who can actually work with both parties to get things done instead of 4 more years with a president who failed Economics 101 and hasn't been able to get a single budget passed in 4 years?

pollardty
pollardty

Psssst, You are basically providing an example to illustrate the point. Ignoring evidence is the answer to your question. QAlso, check out the swing State polls. You're welcome.

Disquskurr
Disquskurr

This is a Republican quality : To lie and lie !!

Somehow rich republicans like Romney think they can bull_doze through facts and on the strength of their money, they can fool the public at large. And it has been done before, like by GW Bush, very effectively.

And there will be folks who will fall for all these lies !!

But I am hoping the  DOCTORED 7.8 LANDSLIDE poll ,IN FAVOR OF sIR rICH rOMNEY , will keep  blissful republicans away from the polls on election day !!

The Hoobie
The Hoobie

DAMN, J-Po! You must be eating well and living right these days---you're at the top of your game here. This is AWESOME. Thanks for writing an argument-stopper I can obnoxiously link to in political discussions on Facebook. :)

S_Deemer
S_Deemer

Yesterday, a wingnut on Politico comments stated that only Gallup and Rasmussen were professional pollsters, so we should ignore all the others. Then, when the latest Gallup and Rasmussen polls showed Obama ahead, he cited a bunch of other polls. AKA denial of reality.

sacredh
sacredh

I love the idea of the wingnuts making up their own polling data and then believing it. I don't want to sound unsympathetic, but I really want to see their little black hearts crushed and stomped into the ground on November 6th.

MomentoMori
MomentoMori

This is the same crowd that thinks Climate Change is a conspiracy by the world's scientists and evolution is a cult to convince people that the Earth is more than 6000 years old.

There is no limit to what they're willing to believe.

KatMan
KatMan

I would question your comment as to harsh were it not so very ture!

sacredh
sacredh

I believe some pretty strange things myself, but I keep them private.

filmnoia
filmnoia

You damn well know that on the morning of Nov 7th they will create another enemy to focus their hate, resentment, paranoia and all around Loserdom on . I suspect in no time Hillary will de demonized, especially if she starts making sounds like she's running for 2016.

Todd Akin will look like a moderate on women's issues when the crazies start on her.

outsider2011
outsider2011

The right just cannot face reality.

So they make up a new one. 

pollardty
pollardty

Or James P. is part of the conspiracy!

MrObvious
MrObvious

Bad news are never good, but it takes a honest man/woman to deal with it.