the national interest

GOP Poll Denialists Totally Crazy, Not Totally Wrong

This was the week that the political world discovered the burgeoning world of conservative polling denial. Just like other, better-established fields of conservative reality denial, the polling denial movement has its own levels of insanity. At the core sit the most fanatical of the denialists, like, a popular site that offers its own twist on public opinion data, which currently has Mitt Romney leading Barack Obama by 7.8 percent nationally. At the next level out, mainstream conservative pundits echo the denialists without quite following their analysis through to its full obsessive, nutty conclusions. The American Spectator’s Robert Stacy McCain accuses the media of slanting its polls deliberately with “coverage that seem[s] intentionally designed to demoralize Republicans and persuade undecided ‘swing’ voters — who have a tendency to vote for the candidate they perceive as the likely winner — to support Obama.” Jay Cost has likewise pressed the less-unhinged version of the poll denialists’ case.

The poll denialists’ argument holds that the polls — all of them, except Rasmussen, conducted by a right-wing pundit with a terrible record of accuracy — are over-sampling Democrats, finding nearly as many of them as showed up at the polls in 2008, which they consider a high-water mark for Democrats unlikely to be repeated. Pundits have patiently explained that polls do not make assumptions about the party identification of voters but merely report what voters tell them. And the most plausible explanation for the higher number of Democrats in polls is that increasing numbers of conservatives who reliably vote Republican are identifying themselves as independents to pollsters.

So poll denialism is silly, and the conspiratorial explanation undergirding it is deranged. Still, the reality is not quite as clean and simple as the defenders of polling have made it out to be. The poll denialists’ rants contain some slivers of truth in them.

First, polling is a very hard science, and it seems to be getting harder. Response rates have dropped, and larger numbers of Americans use only cell phones. If the difficulties of polling overwhelm the pollsters’ ability to get it right, we’ll know only after it happens. It’s conceivable that somehow the polls are systematically over-counting Democratic voters. (Of course, it’s just as possible they’re systematically over-counting Republicans.)

And while that’s highly unlikely, what is surely true is that individual polls do over-sample Democrats. That’s just how statistical margin of error works — some polls will err in one direction, others in another direction. It’s pretty crazy for poll denialists to assume all the non-Rasmussen polls have a Democratic bias, but some of them probably do. The recent Quinnipiac poll showing Obama up by nine points in Florida and ten points in Ohio stands apart from a host of polls showing a tighter race, and it’s probably wrong.

The broader fear behind poll denialism is also one that ought to be treated with sympathy. Conservatives rage that the media are deliberately fostering the impression that Obama is winning, to discourage Republicans from voting. (The beauty of the conspiracy theory is that it supplies its own excuse for failure: If Obama wins, conservatives can argue that he only won because fake polls depressed the Republican vote.)

The conspiracy may be crazy, but it is surely true that rampant horse race coverage affects the outcome of the race. It may not be original to point this out, but it’s true — campaign coverage devotes far too much attention to which candidate is winning, and far too little time to conveying information that voters might use to make up their minds. Instead, the horse race coverage takes the place of the substantive coverage, and the candidate with the lead appears decisive and competent, and the trailing candidate faintly ridiculous.

A good deal of what undecided voters who are just now tuning in will learn about Romney is that he’s a loser disdained by fellow Republicans. Conservative rage over this fact may be utterly misplaced, but the sentiment itself is perfectly understandable.

GOP Poll Denialists Not Totally Wrong