Political Animal


October 09, 2012 9:47 AM The Pew Poll and Confirmation Bias

By Ed Kilgore

In the Daylight Video, I was reacting to the first look at the aggregators this morning, which showed plenty of gloating among conservatives about favorable poll numbers for Romney late yesterday, but just as much panic and even despair among Democrats. Might as well just quote Andrew Sullivan, who definitely set the pace with a post calmly entitled: “Did Obama Just Throw the Entire Election Away?”

The Pew poll is devastating, just devastating. Before the debate, Obama had a 51 - 43 lead; now, Romney has a 49 - 45 lead. That’s a simply unprecedented reversal for a candidate in October. Before Obama had leads on every policy issue and personal characteristic; now Romney leads in almost all of them. Obama’s performance gave Romney a 12 point swing! I repeat: a 12 point swing….
Seriously: has that kind of swing ever happened this late in a campaign? Has any candidate lost 18 points among women voters in one night ever? And we are told that when Obama left the stage that night, he was feeling good. That’s terrifying. On every single issue, Obama has instantly plummeted into near-oblivion….
I’m trying to see a silver lining. But when a president self-immolates on live TV, and his opponent shines with lies and smiles, and a record number of people watch, it’s hard to see how a president and his party recover.

Now Andrew’s reaction is an instructive example of confirmation bias in the assimilation of data. He is someone who clearly thought the first presidential debate was a disaster at the time, and is now freaking out because he’s seeing confirmation of his worst fears. So telling him that this is just one poll (or two polls counting PPP’s new survey showing Romney up by two points among LVs) won’t cut much ice, since he’s now expecting others to show the same confirmation of his own impressions of a catastrophic debate defeat for Obama. It’s also obvious he’s not someone who thinks “fundamentals” are more important than events in determining election outcomes.

In general, people tend to over-react to developments like a moment of adverse polling because they confirm hopes and fears. In some cases, like Sullivan’s, it may be because of the impact on one event. In others, it could be because that same event confirmed earlier, more basic hopes and fears: e.g., conservatives who think Obama’s too stupid to pull off a successful debate performance, or liberals who think he’s a mushy moderate wimp who deserves to lose because he keeps eschewing populism for the fool’s gold (or traitor’s silver) of deficit reduction talk.

Now to anyone without such a predisposition to expect big turning point data just over the next horizon, the Pew and PPP polls were surprising and curious, but hardly proof of anything. Both were almost entirely a snapshot of the most immediate reaction of Americans to the debate, and seemed to reflect a debate-driven partisan “enthusiasm gap” that may already be fading. We need to see some credible national polls with later surveys, and also credible new polling of states like Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Iowa before deciding that anything has really changed, much less than we might as well just tune out until after a pre-ordained election.

Until then, though, you can’t really ask people who think the end of the world is nigh to stop noticing what look like End-Time Signs right out of the Book of Revelation.

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.


  • bruce on October 09, 2012 10:00 AM:

    All those people who were polled who said they'd vote for Romney (and the millions they statistically represent) are obviously now OPEN to voting for Romney, even if they could be swayed back to Obama. So I think this WAS a disaster, and I thought so in real time. If people think Obama has the goods and the opportunities to turn this back around, I'm literally afraid they're wrong: (1) Romney is not going to give a bad performance in a debate (lying doesn't count) (2) no one cares about the VP debate; (3) Obama never was and is not a good debater; (4) town halls are NOT where strong attacks can be made; (5) final debate is foreign policy.

    I hope I'm wrong.

  • jonny bakho on October 09, 2012 10:01 AM:

    The big problem for Obama is he blew the Jobs question. "What are you going to do to create jobs". Obama blew the question in 2010 when he made the pivot from jobs to the deficit. Voters care about Jobs. Voters don't care about the deficit. Only the beltway pundits care about the deficits. Cheney said that "Deficits don't matter" and the voters proved him correct. This left an opening for Romney to claim that his policies will do better at job creation even though it is not true. Obama could not properly rebut Romney because Obama is focused on deficit reduction and not job creation. In reality, the unemployment rate must go down before the deficit picture improves. That a Democrat President should not have internalized that message is pathetic. Obama has moved so far to the right on job creation that Romney can attack him from the left.

  • c u n d gulag on October 09, 2012 10:02 AM:

    If debate performances were as important as they seem to be to Sullie, then President Gore's 2nd term would have ended 4 years ago, and John Kerry would be running for reelection against Jeb Bush, whose older brother failed in his two or three attempt as the Presidency.

    There are exactly 4 weeks to go.

    Obama's a big boy, and knows what he needs to do in the next two debates. And Biden knows his performance is important, too.

    Go help a Democrat get elected to the House or Senate. I'm helping out locally to defeat the odious Nan Hayworth(less).

    And for those Debbie Downer's out there - the next debate between Mitt and Obama is a Town Hall debate.

    You know, the kind where Mitt has to interface with us peons.
    Maybe it'll be a rainy night, and he'll ask the audience where their butlers are waiting for them with their unbrella's?

  • Danp on October 09, 2012 10:02 AM:

    It wasn't that long ago on the Daily Show that Brian Williams said NBC's experts are looking at just a few counties nationwide, because almost everybody has made up their minds. Now we're to believe that looking down or smirking caused 6-7% of the nation to change their minds. Please!

  • c u n d gulag on October 09, 2012 10:06 AM:

    Or, "umbrella's," even - also, too, maybe.

    Ken oui getz "Edit" pleeze?

  • Walker on October 09, 2012 10:08 AM:

    Popular vote does not win elections; EVs do. Nate Silver still has Obama at 70%+

    The only thing the debate hurt was down ticket.

  • Richard Hershberger on October 09, 2012 10:11 AM:

    To be absolutely blunt, the other factor to keep in mind is that Andrew Sullivan isn't the sharpest tack in the box.

    I first became aware of him back in the late 90s, when he was a conservative light. There was a minor kerfluffle in the nascent blogosphere when someone claimed that the mainstream media more frequently identified conservative politicians as "conservative" than they did liberal politicians as "liberal", and this was proof that the media had a liberal bias. This claim was quite popular in conservative circles. Then a linguist went and analyzed the actual data and showed that the factual assertion was false. After a few rounds of the usual attempts at obfuscation, the final consensus among the right wingers was that the whole argument was stupid and those stupid liberals were stupid for stupidly arguing this stupid argument. In the meantime, however, Sullivan's contribution about midway through this was that he knew the media was biased, so he saw no reason to look at the actual data, since he knew the correct conclusion, and if the data seemed to suggest otherwise it clearly was wrong. I gathered at the time that he was considered something of an intellectual beacon in the right. I thought this vaguely pathetic.

    Sullivan since has switched teams, but I see no evidence that he has gotten any smarter. Why he is so widely read is quite beyond me.

  • IndyLinda on October 09, 2012 10:16 AM:

    Sullivan has moments of thoughtful insight, but they tend to be overwhelmed by episodes of crazy hysteria. I'm about as far from a Sarah Palin fan as it's possible to be, but his obsession with whether she gave birth to her baby was just weird. His hair-pulling, hand-wringing reaction to this debate is similarly over the top.
    I feel like the only person in America who thinks that Obama's debate performance was meh. Not good, not terrible, just meh. A missed opportunity.

  • Bo on October 09, 2012 10:18 AM:

    Someone needs to walk poor Sullie from the ledge that he's teetering on. Frankly, I suspect that Sullivan had more than a little ego investment in Obama's uninterrupted march toward re-election.

    I take a somewhat more peripatetic view. That is, I think that Obama needs a "worthy opponent" in order to be a stronger candidate and a better second-term President. While Romney is obviously math-challenged and a pandering snake-oil salesman, his success in the first debate certainly focused the nation on this election.

    As such, Obama now has a "worthy opponent" and a job to do. That is, he needs to effectively deconstruct Romney's unserious and mathematically impossible tax and economic plan. Obama has performed well under adversity for four years now. Trailing in the polls at this point in the campaign presents another such opportunity.

    I would rather see Obama "win" this election than to see Romney "lose" it without having this national conversation about what path to chose -- (1) the slow, steady improvement we have seen over the past four years or (2) the quick, "painless" reversion to the Bush-era incompetence that will lull the country back into a recession while the reincarnation of Alfred E. Newman hunts down and kills Big Bird.

  • brewmn on October 09, 2012 10:26 AM:

    Maybe someone should tell Andy that, if something is "unprecedented," has "never happened before," etc., the appropriate reaction is not to run down the street screaming "Oh My God!!!!! We're Doooooomed!!!!!" but to maybe wait until more data comes in to confirm thart catastrophic has actually happened?

    Also, if the electorate is really this volatile, what's ruling out Obama's campaign from making it swing 20 points the other way with a couple of well-timed "There You go agains" in one of the next debates?

  • stormskies on October 09, 2012 10:27 AM:

    This is such fucking nonsense. The fact is the Pew Poll totally changed their methodology to get that result. If they had used their previous methodology that showed Obama with that big lead it would still show that big lead.

    They changed their methodology: Oddly, the candidate preferences for the big party ID groupings havenít changed that much, and sure enough, the RV sample (aside from being half the size of Septemberís) has a significantly higher percentage of Republicans (34%) than Septemberís (31%), and an even larger reduction in the percentage of Democrats (37% to 31%) This could reflect a sampling error in either month or an actual shift in party ID.

    This is what the corporate media does. They then announce these polls without telling their viewers about the methodology used to arrive at the results. This is fucking intentional in order to make people 'believe' something that just isn't true.

    To me this being journalistic criminals. So we end up with the TV news anchors like Diane Sawyer opening her propaganda show up with "Obama is under great pressure, and struggling"......blah, blah, quack, quack ..

    And while all this is going on of course the Gallup poll, whose methodology is consistent, has Obama up by five.

  • Josef K on October 09, 2012 10:30 AM:

    Iím trying to see a silver lining. But when a president self-immolates on live TV, and his opponent shines with lies and smiles, and a record number of people watch, itís hard to see how a president and his party recover.

    Um, the President and the party recover from this by recovering from this! The election isn't today, tomorrow, next week, or the week after. Romney had one good night, and has had several bad days since then.

    Plus Mitt, thanks to his own voluminous shortcomings, has elevated Paul Ryan to where people are going to watch the VP debates and wonder to themselves if he's "all that" in the first place. I remain hopeful Biden tap-dances on the boy's spine on live camera, or at least hands him his head in trademark fashion.

    There's also the two debates to come, never mind the broad fundamentals Kilgore refers to. One good day doesn't mean much, and certainly doesn't completely dissipate the stink around the GOP's candidate. If anything, its been made worse.

    Just my imo.

  • Diane Rodriguez on October 09, 2012 10:31 AM:

    The reaction of Republicans and Democrats to any degree of bad news, is predictable. Republicans lie, declare the facts untrue and then lie some more - assisted by the media. Democrats get their panties in extreme bunches and announce the imminent falling of the sky - assisted by the media.

    Pretty clear that the media is control of both messages.

    Nate Silver has been shown to be the most accurate of the soothsayers. I'm sticking with him.

  • T2 on October 09, 2012 10:36 AM:

    to all of us, and the Pundits, that were preaching the "Debates don't decide elections" view last week at this time, it would seem perhaps we were wrong. But live by the debate, die by the debate. A couple bloopers by Romney next debate and he'll dip. But the fact that he could get on TV, look great while lying constantly, and now be leading the presidential polls says a lot about this country. And what it says is not good.
    I'm beginning to wonder what will happen if Romney wins the popular vote and loses the electoral college by 20-30 points?

  • Bob Fishell on October 09, 2012 10:38 AM:

    I remember a Newsweek poll in the closing days of the 2010 election that showed Democrats with a 4-point (or so) advantage in the House races. This was in spite of over a year's worth of bad polls for them. We know what happened on election day.

  • sjw on October 09, 2012 10:38 AM:

    Point 1. That Obama did less bad than the MSM is making it out to have been is, in the end, beside the point. It was a debate, not a "discussion" (as Obama stupidly said he was expecting). In a debate, you're supposed to go in for the kill. In a debate, you're supposed to argue. What's more, in a political campaign at this level, after years of hearing about "the audacity of hope" and Obama's claim 4 years ago that "I'm wiry ... I'm a fighter," there is the reasonable expectation that our candidate will show some passion and call out lies. That he will indeed fight. That Obama did none of these things was even recognized by his own campaign staff before the debate was over. And that there are consequences in the polls is normal. Who wants a president who's a wimp? I've seen Obama's wimpiness on a number of occasions, and it's disheartening to me, an ardent supporter: jof course this is going to affect the undedicededs out there.

    Point 2. The majority of commenters here and elsewhere are saying that the polls will rebalance to where they were pre-debate, with maybe just a little upward tick for Romney. Maybe. But maybe not. The person to read on this is Nate Silver. I hope to God that Sullivan's hysteria is just that.

  • gayib on October 09, 2012 10:40 AM:

    I have never understood why ANYONE puts any credence in anthing a serially wrong drama queen like Andrew Sullivan has to say. Ever. Seriously, what did that guy ever do to earn his "reputation"? Supporting Bush's war in Iraq? Deranged conspiracy theories about Trigg Palin? Trolling for bareback sex in DC sex rags? Ughh...can we please do better than this tired, old, deranged queen?

  • c u n d gulag on October 09, 2012 10:40 AM:

    If that happens, there WILL be blood.

    Conservatives aren't like Liberals in 2000.

    They know in their gut that they should rule the country, and if it takes killing Liberals to do it, well, then, too bad for the Liberals.

  • jim filyaw on October 09, 2012 10:45 AM:

    isn't andrew the same one who annointed dubya as the second coming of abe lincoln? (o.k., just in the first term) having not watched the debate, i am somewhat non-plussed. did obama show up in an afro and dashiki? did he flip off willard? did he babble on about restarting the cold war with the soviet union? did he forget which agencies he was going to abolish? did he admit to having off shore bank accounts and paying less taxes than his secretary? i mean, what the hell did he do that was so bad?

  • LAC on October 09, 2012 11:03 AM:

    Andrew Sullivan is a stunt queen. The last act of "Rent" is less dramatic. Obama did not need his help or wisdom the first time, so I do not think his blessing or rendering of garments matters much. I do not know why this guy matters so much.

  • tt on October 09, 2012 11:08 AM:

    Sullivan reacts to everything as if its the first and last time something happened.
    Whenever he is on "real time" he is literally out of breath with excitement when discovering some knowledge that everyone already knows.

  • KadeKo on October 09, 2012 11:17 AM:

    Sullivan is becoming the opposite of the proverbial camel: I'd pretty much have him on the outside, in danger of pissing in, rather than on the inside pissing out.

    As a lefty, I almost don't want him on my side. He doesn't see things, remember things, or predict things clearly enough. (Even after changing his mind about some big things.) And his compass is warped by a series of electromagnets that he can't see.

  • joanneinDenver on October 09, 2012 11:29 AM:

    The President let us down. He was not only not prepared, but his lack of response confirmed those republican ads that said he was a nice guy, a good dad, but in way over his head.

    Democrats and I include the President here, consistently underestimate their opponents and absolutely ridicule the grassroots folks. The local party organizations, if Colorado is any example, are comatose. The Obama administration has failed to bring the American people along. His OFA and the existence of Big Money has overwhelmed local political people. Bad Day in Black Rock.

    I fear a Romney victory. But, I sure as hell think it is going to happen.

  • CurtMinIn on October 09, 2012 12:01 PM:

    Sullivan is also the guy who stopped including right-wing pollster Rasmussen in his Reality Check series because he recognized they had a permanent thumb on the scale which they use to set the narrative.

    So what did Mr. Reality Check do post-debate? He got hysterical when Rasmussen and two other right-wing pollsters showed a Romney surge. True, later data from Pew and PPP are to be taken seriously but the stunning inconsistency and hysteria exhibited by Sullivan have demonstrated exactly what Ed accuses him of in this post. Namely, that he sees what he expects to see and doesn't let facts get in his way of his emotions.

  • smintheus on October 09, 2012 12:47 PM:

    Sullivan's political "analysis" is always a joke.

    The Pew poll's internals show that it is demographically way out of whack. There's a 16% shift from Democratic respondents to Republicans. There's also a massive over-representation of older whites, and an under-representation of minorities. So its results have to be tossed out.

    Just as happened with polls after Palin was picked in 2008, Republicans suddenly became much more eager to crow about their ticket. That seems to mean that they're much more eager to answer pollsters' questions. I didn't think there was really a large swing in 2008, and I don't think there's one now. These blips are an artifact of partisan enthusiasm.

  • John on October 09, 2012 12:51 PM:

    I agree with joanneinDenver. The President did indeed let us down. His supporters deserved a lot more than what the President gave in last week's debate.
    Call me a Chicken Little, but, I think something did happen that night which changed the dynamic of the race and dramatically lessened Obama's chances and damaged Democrats down the ballot. For example,a WBUR poll taken Oct 5-7 and released today, now shows Scott Brown leading Elizabeth Warren in the Massachusetts Senate race by 4 points, 47% - 43%. Other recent polls showed her up by 5 or 6 points. I've noticed that in other competitive Senate races where the Democrats had slight leads there has been slippage. If the President does indeed lose, I'm convinced that historians and pundits, will point to the epic blunder he made in last week's debate.

  • Anonymous on October 09, 2012 1:14 PM:

    jonny bakho: The big problem for Obama is he blew the Jobs question.

    This is exactly right. I think Obama's Achilles heel is that he has a hard time making a forceful case for his economic approach. His economic picks have been mediocre, and he clearly doesn't read Krugman. And having swallowed the conservative "deficit" frame, he hasn't made job creation his #1 priority. So he is vulnerable. Liberals like me worry that Obama doesn't have a deep understanding of what the economy needs and why he needs to defend Social Security and Medicare.

    He is the only choice, however, because he is not the Bush-on-steroids approach of Romney-Ryan. So on economics he is winning by default.

    I think the polls right now, the Romney debate moment, all of that--are reading more like a Hollywood script than reality. People enjoy a powerful narrative, and this is a popular football story. The powerful, rich team favored by the bad guys (Romney's) has been playing badly. It looks like they are going to lose. Then, they make a fantastic play in the second quarter. The game is tied! Oh, the suspense!! Will the bad guys win?? Not in the end of the narrative, and not, I think, in reality.

    Great Captcha: subvert typedanc

  • TCinLA on October 09, 2012 1:45 PM:

    Sullivan is right and all the whistling past the graveyard won't change that. There are no excuses in politics.

    All Obama had to do Wednesday night in front of 60 million people was what he did Thursday morning in front of a few thousand. He did in fact "blow it."

  • DisgustedWithItAll on October 09, 2012 2:28 PM:

    Well, it's pretty clear that blindness doesn't afflict only the wingnuts. Just look at all the denial going on here.

    Here's what everybody needs to do.

    1) Understand just how bad Obama was,
    2) Get really, really mad about it,
    3) Understand that the real villain was a lying sack of fucking shit exhibiting an amoral, vicious, unprincipled, aggressive ambition, then
    4) Channel all that anger at the sack of shit known as Mitt Romney and the forest of dickweeds known as the GOP.

    It's time to get really mad, and crush some balls. Republican balls.

  • Beetwasher on October 09, 2012 5:52 PM:

    Indeed, thanks for the sanity, Ed.