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September 27, 2012 10:37 AM Delusions of the Poll Denialists

By Ed Kilgore

Whether they are trying to lay the foundation for a “stolen election” claim, or an enduring “conservative majority” myth, or are simply trying to cheer themselves up, the growing tribe of Poll Denialists rely on an awful lot of dubious or downright ignorant assumptions in dismissing polls they don’t like as biased.

Here are three, just in case you encounter one of these birds and want to go to the trouble of trying the art of persuasion:

1) “Weighting.” Most denialists assert or assume that pollsters showing a significant pro-Democratic turnout gap are “weighting” the sample for partisanship before or after conducting the survey. TNR’s Nate Cohn demolishes this one pretty thoroughly today:

Most pollsters don’t weight their polls to match a preconceived electorate. Instead, they take a demographically representative sample based on actual figures from the US census and then let respondents speak for themselves about whether they’re voting for Obama or Romney. For illustrative purposes, consider the Bloomberg/Selzer poll. They started by taking a sample of all American adults, weighted to match the demographics of all adults in the US census, like, race, education, and marital status. To produce a likely voter sample, they then would have excluded adults who weren’t registered to vote and then asked a series of questions to help determine who was likely to vote.

As Nate explains, whether or not someone voted in 2008 is typically part of (but not the totality of) the test for whether a registered voter becomes a “likely voter” in a given poll, but there’s no “2008 turnout model” that guides the initial sample, which is based on census numbers, not prior election results. It’s the Denialists, not their targets, who are into “weighting,” because they demand a partisan distribution that resembles their version of the “true” divisions in the country.

2) Midterms Versus Presidentials: A lot of Denialists observe that the partisan distribution of voters in current polls resemble that of 2008 rather than 2010, and consider that a “proof” of bias, since 2008 was a “Democratic wave election” and 2010 is a “Republican wave election,” and a more recent one at that. They typically ignore the eternal difference in turnout patterns between midterm and presidential elections, which varying significantly regardless of any other factor (e.g., this or that politician’s or party’s popularity, the economy, etc., etc.). Midterm electorates are much older and whiter than presidential electorates, which has become particularly significant in the last couple of cycles as the two parties increasingly reflected a country polarized on age and ethnic lines. To put it another way, the day after the 2008 election Republican midterm gains became exceptionally likely, and the day after the 2010 election the winds shifted and Democratic prospects for 2012 improved. “Reweighting” polls to pretend away that demographic shift makes no sense at all.

3) Partisan ID Variables: The reigning assumption of Denialists is partisan ID is a zero-sum game that translates directly into a horse-race advantage. This ignores the underlying partisanship of half-or-more of self-identified independents. A combination of “brand erosion” for the GOP since 2006 and the self-conscious (if ultimately meaningless) independence of Tea Party folk has meant that an increasing number of reliable Republican voters are now identifying themselves as indies. This has two superficially confusing effects: Democrats obtain an ID advantage over Republicans, while Republicans do better among independents. None of this involves a distorted sample. “Reweigthing” samples to make Rs and Ds equal (or even to give Rs an advantage, as Rasmussen does) double counts an awful lot of conservatives who vote R but identify indie.

There’s another myth in circulation in the conservative echo chamber that is not so much a denial of the accuracy of polls, but a challenge to their predictive value: wildly exaggerated versions of the dubious “incumbent rule” holding that undecided voters always break decisively against incumbent candidates like Obama. As Dave Weigel pointed out yesterday, Dick Morris pursues this delusion to a particularly ludicrous extent.

None of this should matter after Election Day, but again, to the extent that a losing GOP can be expected to claim that adverse polls (plus “voter fraud” and perhaps Romney’s failure to run a sufficiently ideological campaign) affected the actual results, it’s worth exploding the Denialist case early and often.

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.

Comments

  • c u n d gulag on September 27, 2012 10:52 AM:

    Ed,
    You forgot one:
    4)"NEENER! NEENER!! NEENER!!!
    WE CAN'T HEAR YOU!
    WE HAVE OUR OWN NUMBERS, AND THEY AIN'T BASED ON CLINTON'S ARITHMETIC - IT'S KARL ROVE'S MATH!!!


  • Josef K on September 27, 2012 10:53 AM:

    Whether they are trying to lay the foundation for a “stolen election” claim,

    I'll wager its more to set the stage for articles of impeachment, ready to be filed no later than Jan. 1, 2013.

    Please note the deliberate lack of capitalization involved in the above sentence.

  • Varecia on September 27, 2012 10:55 AM:

    Damn the torpedoes!

    Polls aside, the most significant factor is that we've been working daily on this campaign since April. That has to have made a difference.

  • BillFromPA on September 27, 2012 11:10 AM:

    First, just as conservatism cannot fail, it can only be failed, every GOP loss is 'stolen'. They don't need to set that up, it's a given. Therefore, I think what's up here is an 80/20, 80% of this is to keep the polls from becomming a self- fulfilling prophecy. These folks reaally believe that a thing repeated often enough simply becomes real, the remaining 20% is whistling past the graveyard. They're holding their palms over their ears and shouting, 'la,la,la,la' ad infinitum to block out the tsunami headed their way.

  • c u n d gulag on September 27, 2012 11:14 AM:

    Joseph K,
    I'm not screaming - Conservatives are.
    I'm just channeling them.

    Tune in to FOX, and watch their utter disillusionment - and pure rage!
    Watch Dick Morris - he's practically apoplectic!

  • Perspecticus on September 27, 2012 11:20 AM:

    I read a quote from Dean Chambers, the fellow who created unskewedpolls.com , in which he stated, "[My] numbers may not be accurate, but people can trust them."

    My assumption is that he means that, while his results may not represent any verifiable truth about the horserace, we can trust that his numbers are, actually, a group or combination of word or numeric symbols used in counting or noting a total.

  • stormskies on September 27, 2012 11:20 AM:

    One of the first principles in human psychology relative to feeling secure is the need for 'self consistency'.

    This Repiglicans universe is fact free, and simply constructed of a set of interlocking delusions that keep those delusions from being busted by actual facts.

    Thus, their need for psychological stability and security is dependent of sustaining their fictions and delusions at all costs.

    So they create delusion after delusion every time one of their delusions is demolished by facts. So now we see this hysterical spectacle of them re-creating, inventing, the polls to sustain their psychological security and stability.

    They have too. To admit that even one of their delusions is wrong is then to unravel all their delusions. At that point their whole life is then destroyed and has zero meaning.

    So of course their need to sustain their fictions at all costs.

  • biggerbox on September 27, 2012 11:24 AM:

    The "likely voter" screening questions I'm worried about are about how many respondents fit whatever crazy ID requirements their states have enacted so they'll be ABLE to vote, despite the GOP suppression schemes. Does anyone know if pollsters are accounting for that?

  • rip on September 27, 2012 11:26 AM:

    Prowling conservative blog comments, there is also a lot of revisionist poll history going on.

    In the memory of many conservatives, Scott Walker was losing in the polls during the recall, most pollsters completely missed the Republican wave of 2010, in 2008 not only was Rasmussen "most accurarte", but everyone else was way off, and of course the old chestnut, Reagan was trailing in all the polls until election day.

    None of this is true of course, but apparently conservatives believe you are entitled to your own "facts".

  • Republicans who love voting machines on September 27, 2012 11:27 AM:

    Can you say DIEBOLD? How about NO PAPER TRAIL? Or the always popular NO WAY TO AUDIT EXCEPT BY THE MACHINE ITSELF.

  • ComradeAnon on September 27, 2012 11:32 AM:

    Ed, I think they're setting things up for a "stolen election". Period. When exit polls show something very different than results, they can say "We told you".

  • Republicans who love voting machines on September 27, 2012 11:34 AM:

    And let's not forget, the machines love us too. The little black box that does just what we tell it to do...using our TRADE SECRET, PROPRIETARY SOFTWARE. We'd love to let you see it but, well...we just can't, that's all, I mean, being a trade secret and everything.

  • Bokonon on September 27, 2012 11:44 AM:

    Can I suggest a more sinister idea? This isn't denial. It isn't panic. It isn't the GOP's Baghdad Bob moment.

    It is cover.

    Perhaps this unified and coordinated talking point reveals a GOP strategy - of providing a plausible narrative line if the GOP chooses to contest the election results in states like Colorado, or Ohio, or Pennsylvania, if those results are even remotely close.

    Think about it. This dovetails neatly with the partisan voter registration efforts that the GOP has been doing, as well as their efforts to churn the voting rolls in those states and knock as many Democrats as possible off the rolls as they can (which will drive lots and lots of people to have to file provisional ballots).

    Any time that the GOP plans something really aggressive, they put their public relations people out in front of it to spin a narrative, and start trying to steer the media to adopt their framing. So we are already used to the ideas when the power play comes.

  • Leopold Von Ranke on September 27, 2012 12:14 PM:

    Without regard as to which side is "right" about the polls, it is going to be close in Ohio and Iowa, the two states in which I divide my time these days.

    Socially conservative NW Iowa ( and to a lesser extent the SW) will turn out in droves to vote against retention for Judge Wiggins, giving ROmney a huge advantage, and sadly, killing Christie Vilsack's chances against King.

    In SE Ohio, a propaganda campaign alleging President Obama is "anti-coal" (the Holy Grail for a consistently economically depressed area since the 1960s) has turned what was a marginal majority for Obama in 2008 into Romney country.

    It's going to depend largely in each of these states on GOTV/Voter Protection. If you haven't volunteered yet, do so now.

  • Joe Friday on September 27, 2012 1:01 PM:

    Various polls indicate Obama is up twelve to fourteen points in Pennsylvania, but the state Republican party claims their "internal polling" shows the race as "tied".

    Somebody is having their Purple Kool-Aid delivered by the 55 gallon drum.

  • Bokonon on September 27, 2012 1:25 PM:

    Naw, Joe Friday ... it isn't Kool Aid. I wish it was. The GOP is just giving aid and comfort to the party faithful that they are still going to win the election (don't forget about turnout and donations and the effects on down-ticket races).

    At the same time, the GOP is telling the REST of us what results they hope to engineer ... once their voter disqualification and registration churn efforts in Pennsylvnia play out.

  • Jim S on September 27, 2012 2:51 PM:

    If you want an idea of the problem with party identification go to Politico. Read the comments on almost any given article. You will find a large number of comments from people whose political identification reads Indpendent, NA, Tea Party, Conservative or some similar non-Republican identification whose posts are reliably pro-Republican and often reflect a true hatred of President Obama. I have occasionally posted messages asking them why their identification doesn't match their rhetoric and never get an answer.

  • Puggins on September 27, 2012 5:05 PM:

    Great Article, but it falls into the trap of fighting a straw man that the Republican party set up for liberals to knock down.

    Anyone who thinks that all of these Republicans are too stupid or too far into the bubble to recognize that the polls are accurate is making a mistake. I don't think it's going to matter in this case, but here you go: this is pitch perfect conservative red-meat meant to fire up the base.

    (1) Indignation at the "Liberal" media
    (2) Proof that David Conservative is being pounded on by Goliath Liberal
    (3) Proof that they're trying to steal the election a different way (see: Voter ID laws)

    All of this is wrapped into a pretty, teflon package that is absolutely argument-proof to the base and to low-information voters in general, who probably still think that Paul Ryan is a policy wonk.

    So Ed masterfully dissects the ridiculous arguments being flung out there and winds up persuading no one. You can say the same thing about pretty much every blogger out there.

    This is a paint-by-numbers strategy that Republicans have used for thirty years, and we as liberals can't seem to break through the damn thing. I'm not entirely sure we can in the short run either:

    (1) Paint opposing or non-biased sources of information as corrupt or non-patriotic
    - Liberal Media
    - Left-Wing Bloggers
    - Communist Unions
    (2) Throw out claim that is patently false but resonates emotionally with a portion of the electorate
    - Biased Polls
    - Acorn/Election-stealing
    - Cowardly War Record
    - Claims of Inventing the Internet
    (3) Ignore all claims of bias/falacy by the discredited groups from step 1

    So we wind up bewildered by a candidate's sheer dishonesty, racism or brazenness and how such a ridiculous meme can linger. Sometimes it works (Kerry), and plenty of other times it doesn't (Obama '08), but this isn't anything new, and we should expect it to be trotted out again and again until the ridiculous "liberal media" meme can be stamped into the dirt, likely by decades of hard work by an expansive grass-roots effort that hasn't started yet.

  • Doug on September 27, 2012 6:14 PM:

    Bokonon, the only flaw in your reasoning is then in every close race the results would always be skewed in favor of the Republican candidate by just enough to prevent recounts and contested elections.
    How'd that work out in Minnesota?

  • bigtuna on September 27, 2012 7:21 PM:

    how do they deal with people w/o landlines? seems like this would skew results to older people who actually answer their phones. No one under 30 in my work has a land line, or if they do, answers it. None. Among about 30 people, mostly likely to vote, and Vote Dem., NONE use a landline.