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the national interest

Pollsters, News Conspiring to Elect Obama

Actor Clint Eastwood speaks during the final day of the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on August 30, 2012 in Tampa, Florida. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was nominated as the Republican presidential candidate during the RNC which will conclude today. Could an event this bizarre have actually occured on its own? Or was it staged by the networks in order to embarrass Mitt Romney?

Since the end of the presidential conventions, the race has broken sharply in Barack Obama’s direction. What this will ultimately prove, nobody knows. Perhaps Obama’s convention bounce will completely dissipate, or maybe Mitt Romney will dominate the debates. Nate Cohn has argued, persuasively in my view, that Obama’s bounce is especially bad news for Romney because it shows that a majority of voters are at least open to reelecting Obama, which undercuts Romney’s premise that they are bound to turn decisively against him. That could be wrong. What’s undeniable is that Obama has received a bigger boost from the convention period and, at this moment, is running ahead. (CNN's new poll, showing Obama bouncing up to a six-point lead among likely voters, being the most recent example.)

This morning, the Romney campaign is out with a full-force effort to blast out its spin that it is winning, or will soon be winning, polls be damned. This campaign polling memorandum is pretty standard political spin. These comments from a “top Romney adviser” to National Review, on the other hand, are pure derangement:

PPP has these polls that just put chum in the water for the media. Sometimes I think there’s a conscious effort between the media and Chicago to get Republicans depressed. And I hope our friends realize that all these media analysts out there are Democrats WHO WANT US TO LOSE. And the more Washington DC controls our economy, the more important inside-the-beltway publications are and the more money they make. The 202 area code is dominated by people who will make more money if Obama is reelected, so it’s not just an ideological thumb they’re putting on the scale for him, it’s a business interest.

If this is the Romney campaign’s genuine theory of the race — that political reporters are deliberately trying to mislead America into believing Obama is winning in order to fatten their profits — the Romney campaign is in a lot of trouble.

But variants of this paranoia have gained heavy circulation the last couple of days. PPP (Public Policy Polling) is a special target of conservative rage. PPP is an openly Democratic firm, and its results have historically had a small pro-Democratic lean. But its recent findings have actually been more GOP-friendly than those of other firms, and it has found a smaller bounce for Obama than other firms.

A couple of days ago, “two officials intimately involved” in Romney’s campaign told Politico that Obama leads Romney by “high single digits” in Ohio, according to internal tracking polls of pro-Romney groups. A Republican super-PAC staffer conceded something similar a week before to the New York Times. Unofficial Romney campaign spokesblogger Jennifer Rubin, writing from her inexplicable perch at the Washington Post, issued a snarky rebuttal:

As I learned in my lengthy phone call with the senior advisor and other conversations over the last week with Romney’s top advisors, much of what you read about the campaign from “unnamed” Republican officials (at what level? based on what information?) suggesting the Romney team is worried its “behind” or is slipping in states like Ohio is bunk. 

This argument is a classic of the Rubin reportorial method. She shares no further evidence to support Romney’s official confidence in its Ohio standing. One might suppose that an admission against interest (Republican conceding Romney trails in Ohio) would trump the official line of a campaign with a clear interest in talking up its prospects or, at the very least, count as evidence of some kind. But Rubin simply takes it as self-evidently true that the official Romney campaign line is the definitive word. Some Republican says they’re losing? No, no, she has “learned” otherwise from Romney’s campaign itself.

Meanwhile, conservative blogger Jay Cost has a wild, spleen-venting attack on various enemies who are trying to fool America into believing that Obama has been running ahead of Romney:

This impression has been facilitated in part by several factors: an aggressive Obama PR operation that courts the media in an attempt to create a “bandwagon” effect, registered voter polls that often over-sample Democrats, left-leaning journalists who often assume an Obama advantage; former Obama campaign consultant Nate Silver, whose black-box statistical model for the New York Times has shown an outsized lead for the president (and whose 2010 model consistently placed the battle for the House as a tossup, while giving Democrats a 20 percent chance of holding the House on Election Day), as well the proliferation of surveys conducted by Public Policy Polling, which does regular polling for the hyper-partisan union, the Service Employees International Union.

Cost dismisses PPP because it conducts surveys for a union but proceeds to hold up as “non-partisan such sources as Fox News and Rasmussen," the latter of whom, like Cost, doubles as a conservative pundit.

The contours of this debate are bizarre yet familiar. Conservatives have crafted their own epistemology in which purportedly neutral social science is not merely imperfect (which it very much is) but deliberately biased, and thus the only valid authorities are those committed to the success of the conservative movement. This sort of thing has already happened in large swaths of the social and (in the case of climate data) even hard sciences. It is only fitting we should see it happen to public-opinion research.

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Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images