Tuned In

“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.