Political Animal


June 21, 2012 4:10 PM The Dick Morris Syndrome

By Ed Kilgore

Greg Sargent has an interesting post up reporting a discussion with Obama’s pollster, Joel Berenson, that revealed he was not about to give any great credence to the new Bloomberg poll from Selzer & Co.—you know, the one that showed Obama blowing out to a 13-point lead over “out-of-touch” Mitt Romney. The money quote from Berenson:

“The only thing that’s bouncing around are the public polls,” Benenson said. “The electorate doesn’t bounce around like that. It’s more static than the noise in all these polls. If you watch the electorate over time, they don’t jump up and down. This is a process.”
“Movement tends to come in small increments, and people ought to be mindful of that,” Benenson continued. “We had 45 different polls over a 42 day period. It’s an industry unto itself.”

So why does the commentariat ignore what it knows about the underlying dynamics of the race and overreact to every outlier?

I can’t speak for everyone, but I’d say many progressives are simply trying to counter-balance triumphalist spin from the Right, based not just on polling data, but on what is a psychologically important conviction that Obama’s been toast virtually from the day he was first elected.

You know the drill: Obama only won the presidency of this “center-right nation” because (a) George W. Bush betrayed his conservative principles; (b) John McCain did the same thing, further “discouraging” the GOP base; (c) Obama promised to abandon liberalism and adopt conservative policies at least 50% of the time; (d) ACORN, having already wrecked the housing market and brought on the global financial collapse, committed massive voter fraud; (e) the liberal news media (plotting at JournoList) turned Obama into a national hero and disguised his radical past, etc. etc. The 2010 elections, according to this account of things, confirmed the true wishes of the American people, who are prepared to eject the socialist, un-American, Christ-hating foe in November.

Thus, every time there is a short-term polling trend adverse to Obama, great lusty cheers of impending victory are raised in most precincts of the Right. And it’s annoying as hell.

There’s a natural temptation to spin right back in response to what might be called the Dick Morris Syndrome among conservatives. Indeed, some folk think they have an obligation to out-spin the other side lest credulous MSM types follow the lead of whichever side is spinning the most boldly.

Questions of integrity aside, we need to remind ourselves that expectations of victory in June will have little or no impact on how people ultimately vote. If conservatives want to deceive themselves into believing God is on their side and victory is certain, let them do so. To an alarming extent, they feel no particular compunction to admit it when they turn out to be wrong, and/or they come up with a new, outlandish theory for why they lost. I don’t want to behave like that. It’s very likely to be a close election, and of course Obama can lose, as can Mitt Romney, as he reminds us often with his uncanny ability to make unforced errors. Public opinion research is interesting, and can often tell us things we need to know, so don’t put me in the category of anti-polling know-nothings. But Berenson’s right: particularly at this moment of American history, public opinion moves slowly if at all, and it’s unlikely anything happening right now is going to be decisive. Leave the Dick Morris Syndrome to Dick Morris.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on June 21, 2012 4:25 PM:

    Oh there are at least TWO things that will help turn turn the polls quickly and massively towards Mitt.

    And the Conservatives pray, PRAY, for them EVERY day!

    One, is another complete economic collapse!
    Hopefully here, but if it's Europe, and it fecks Obama and the Democrats by Election Day, they're ok with that, too.

    And another, and even better one, is another 9/11 on Obama's watch!!!

    And both, would be like Christmas and their birthdays, rolled into one.

  • T2 on June 21, 2012 4:27 PM:

    the only poll in the last few weeks that caught my eye was the, I think, Harvard study showing Obama lost 3-5% of votes in 2008 simply due to racism. I'm not sure where that 3-5% came from but I'm assuming the "electorate" in total that was not Republican (as we know they didn't intend to vote for Obama). So that leaves Dems and Indy's that normally vote Dem deciding either not to vote for a black man, or voting for McCain.
    McCain was so hapless that even a 5% advantage due to the race vote only kept him from losing worse.
    But this time.....well, Obama hasn't changed colors, and the tone of the TeaParty has kept the race thing front and center, sad as it is.

  • Hedda Peraz on June 21, 2012 4:56 PM:

    Them pollsters ain't no different from what we used to call "weathermen". Now they say they're "meteor-ologists"- like rocks from space got anything to do with the rain and such.

    But they got all this damn data from satellites and thermometers at airports, and two minutes to fill between sports and traffic, so they stand in front of a green screen and tell us how smart they are, what they learned in college.

    They are right about tomorrow just as often as them pollsters are about next November.

  • Rich on June 21, 2012 4:58 PM:

    Obama's pollster is right. Commentators yammer about every single poll without considering research design, item wording, change over time, concordance among polls, level of error, etc. they're too lazy to actually pick up real intel on the candidates and too lazy to explain what the polls mean, but their all to happy to overinterpret them.

    The rights and the pseudo-centrists like Dan Balz are the worst offenders, but even Josh Marshall, who should know better is investing energy (actually it's Josh's obviously inept polling "expert") in this nonsense.

  • Ron Byers on June 21, 2012 5:29 PM:

    I will be the first to admit that I loved the recent Bloomberg poll results because they seem to line up nicely with what I am seeing in the real world and they don't help the horserace narrative that drives most of the public polls this time of year, but I have to agree that it is too early to worry at all about polling. We all just need to work as hard as we can to make sure our voters are able and willing to vote for our candidates. After all nothing good can come from focusing on the polls good or bad especially in June.

    All that said don't be surprised if Obama doesn't crush Romney, Citizens United not withstanding. I thought McCain a bad candidate, but Romney makes McCain look like a towering political genius.

  • jjm on June 21, 2012 6:27 PM:

    I note that Raw Story has an item on the Romney sons trying to 'humanize' their Dad on Conan, telling the television audience that their father was obsessed with a Will Ferrell joke: http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2012/06/21/romneys-sons-dad-was-obsessed-with-will-ferrell-taco-chant/

    "Craig Romney revealed that his dad became so obsessed with a Will Ferrell chant from Saturday Night Live that for “five years,” whenever someone would say the words “taco” or “burrito” in his presence, he’d repeat the rest of Ferrell’s lines. The full chant goes: “Taco! Burrito! What’s coming out of your Speedo?”

    Don't think that will work to boost his popularity. But the fact that the campaign imagines it will seems a bit symptomatic. It may reveal how true Freud's equation of hoarding money with excrement may be.

  • Doug on June 21, 2012 7:34 PM:

    To be honest, I don't find the Bloomberg poll to be THAT far out. The poll numbers for Obama and Romney, if I remember correctly, didn't add up to 100, as there were 17% undecided (or write-ins?).
    To me that says that approximately 80% of the electorate has already made up its mind who they're going to vote for and of those that havealready decided, a large majority plan on voting for Mr. Obama. It also means that Romney needs to move 14 out of every 17 of those "undecideds" into his camp to win.
    All other polls have placed the elections within 3-5 percentage points and this, while great for the ego and hopefully a sign of things to come, is just too far out. Either the other polls are off or this one is.