The good news for Democrats this year was that the right’s brand of magical thinking (or non-thinking) bit the GOP in the ass, persuading it to disregard all the red flags and assume even a figure as hollow as Romney could triumph. (Retaking the Senate was once thought to be a lock, too.) The books chronicling what happened in 2012 will devote much attention to the failings of Romney’s campaign and to the ruthlessness and surgical rigor of Obama’s. But an equally important part of this history is the extraordinary lengths to which the grandees of the GOP—not just basket cases like Dick “Landslide!” Morris and Glenn Beck, but the supposed adults regarded by the Beltway Establishment and mainstream media as serious figures—enabled their party’s self-immolating denial of political reality. This was the election in which even George Will (who predicted a 321 Electoral College win for Romney) surrendered to the cult of the talk-radio base and drank the Kool-Aid without realizing it had been laced with political cyanide. If a tea-party voter in Texas was shocked that Obama won, he was no less thunderstruck than the Romney campaign, or Karl Rove. Rove’s remarkably graphic public meltdown on Fox News—babbling gibberish about how his Ohio numbers showed a path for Romney even after the election was lost—marked not just the end of his careers as a self-styled political brainiac and as a custodian of hundreds of millions of dollars in super-PAC money. It was an epic on-camera dramatization of his entire cohort’s utter estrangement from reality.
The most histrionic indicator of the GOP Establishment’s enlistment in the post-fact alternative universe was the pillorying of Nate Silver, whose FiveThirtyEight statistical model (and accompanying blog) in the Times analyzing all major national and state surveys on a daily basis consistently found Obama a fairly prohibitive favorite in the race. Conservative commentators disgorged thousands and thousands of words to impugn Silver as a liberal hack, accusing him of slanting the facts to fit a political bias. Freud couldn’t have imagined a clearer case study in projection. For backup, the anti-Silver forces turned to the likes of Jay Cost of The Weekly Standard, whose learned, lengthy, and chart-laden explanations of why Silver and the polls were wrong could be considered scientific in the same way creation science is. An even sadder case was Michael Barone, the once-respected co-author of The Almanac of American Politics who in 2008 compared Sarah Palin to FDR and who this year abandoned his fact-based standard for a faith-based standard underestimating minority turnout; he predicted a 315 electoral-vote victory for Romney. Like Rove, Barone called nearly every battleground state wrong. (The professional pollster most admired by the right, the GOP-leaning Rasmussen, didn’t bat much higher.) Silver got all 50 states right.
Some of Silver’s detractors didn’t bother to concoct their own bogus analyses but just tried to defame and bully him. In the waning days of October, Joe Scarborough of MSNBC’s Morning Joe discounted FiveThirtyEight’s finding that Obama had (then) a 73.6 percent probability of victory by ranting that “anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a toss-up right now is such an ideologue they should be kept away from typewriters, computers, laptops, and microphones for the next ten days, because they’re jokes.” Dean Chambers, a conservative blogger who gained popularity on the right by setting up a junk-science Romney-boosting site called UnSkewed Polls, implied that FiveThirtyEight was skewed by Silver’s sexual orientation. Chambers wrote that Silver is “of very small stature, a thin and effeminate man with a soft-sounding voice that sounds almost exactly like the ‘Mr. New Castrati’ voice used by Rush Limbaugh on his program.” (To which Silver responded with a classic Tweet: “Unskewedpolls argument: Nate Silver seems kinda gay + ??? = Romney landslide!”) Scarborough’s and Chambers’s efforts to discredit FiveThirtyEight mirrored their party’s attempts to demonize the nonpartisan organizations that questioned Romney and Ryan’s voodoo economics as well as Jack Welch’s assault on the Bureau of Labor Statistics. You challenge the imaginary numbers of the post-fact GOP at your peril.
The GOP’s wholesale retreat from reality perhaps found its ultimate expression in a Peggy Noonan blog at Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal that may achieve “Dewey Defeats Truman” immortality. Writing on Election Eve, she informed the faithful that “Romney’s slipping into the presidency” and will win. “All the vibrations are right,” she explained, citing such numerical evidence as crowd sizes in Pennsylvania and Ohio (both of which Romney would lose the next day) and yard signs. In Florida, she “saw Romney signs, not Obama ones,” adding that she’d heard tell of similar visitations in both Ohio and “tony Northwest Washington, D.C.”