Still, the media establishment had not apparently gotten the memo that data aggregation is far superior to "gut feelings" at predicting public choices, particularly when there are such things as opinion polls.
Sunday, November 18, 2012
The Republican World of Make-Believe
After Barack Obama scored his decisive re-election victory, CBS reported that the Romney campaign was “shellshocked” over the loss--that it was like a "sucker punch." An unnamed senior advisor recalled, "We went into the evening confident we had a good path to victory...I don't think there was one person who saw this coming." Earlier, Romney had declared that he was so convinced of victory that he had not written a concession speech (Obama had written both a concession and a victory speech, following standard practice). When the expected Romney concession was oddly delayed, Fox News Shep Smith wondered on air whether Romney had actually been telling the truth about not having written a concession speech, tweeting later that the failure to write one was "inexplicable."
More amazing was the report, again by CBS News, that Romney's decision to Pennsylvania in the final days of the campaign was not a hail Mary play for a swing state given that he was coming up short everywhere else, but rather because they believed their internal "unskewed" polls that said they had Ohio sewn up, and so had decided to go to Pennsylvania (a state that pollsters considered safely in the Obama column) in order to score a “broad victory.”
Then there was Fox News Analyst Megyn Kelly's “walk of shame” when Republican operative Karl Rove (head of American Crossroads, a Super PAC that had funnelled millions of dollars to getting Romney elected) induced her to walk over to the Fox “decision room” to publicly second-guess their assessment that Ohio had gone to Obama (their response: they were quite comfortable with their call).
All things considered, odds are better than even that Romney/Republican bluster was not just a calculated bid to fake out the other side and improve their chances of victory. They really believed they were going to win, and not just win in a squeaker, win in an absolute landslide.
This is no small miscalculation. The polls had been predicting an Obama win for months. At no point was Romney favored in the national polls. Moreover, all educated election observers (including, one would think, paid Republican strategists and pundits) know that national polls are not a reliable predictor of presidential elections. U.S. presidential elections actually come down to a handful of swing states, which Obama dominated (in the end, he won all but North Carolina).
In the months leading up to the election, no credible pollster gave the odds of an Obama victory at less than 60 percent . In final days of the election, New York Times election guru, Nate Silver, had the odds of an Obama victory at 90-2 percent. Stanford Professor Simon Jackman also had an Obama victory at 91 percent prior to the election.
Thus, short of massive voter fraud (which some predicted and feared--I confess to being a bit concerned myself) or millions of minorities, young people, seniors, and women getting confused about where the polling place was or deciding that they didn’t care about the election after all, Romney was highly highly highly likely to lose.
More amazingly, while most of the mainstream media was predicting a dead-heat (fixating inexplicably on national poll results), the standard bearers of the Republican party (including the know-nothings at Fox News) were actually predicting a Romney blow-out. Rush Limbaugh forecast 300 electoral college votes for Romney: “All my thinking says Romney big.” George Will predicted 321 Romney 217 Obama, laughably calling Minnesota for Romney (Obama won it by 8 points). Dick Morris called a Romney landslide at 325 votes in the EC: “It will be the biggest surprise in recent American history.” Newt Gingrich also predicted a decisive Romney victory with over 300 EC votes: “My personal guess is you’ll see a Romney landslide, 53 percent-plus.”
For their part, Karl Rove, Sean Hannity, Ari Fleischer, John Boehner, Bill Wrong-About-Everything™ Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, Sarah Palin, and Peggy Noonan all predicted a tighter Romney win. Noonan made her prediction based on “all the vibrations” being “right” and the number of Romney lawn-signs she had seen on her recent trip to Florida
What are these guys paid for anyway? And why are they always wrong? Even a broken clock is right, as they say, twice a day.
Republican faith in their inevitable victory was fairly universal—extending from the pundits to Republican strategists to the Republican base. (The Republican voters I have talked to were pretty convinced it would happen and incredulous when it didn’t. When I reminded one family member that I had showed her the statistics last summer, which indicated that she should prepare for a Romney loss, she claimed to have no recollection of such a conversation… Aggravating, to say the least.)
This is not like 2004, when Democrats were devastated that Bush had been re-elected despite a needless budget-busting war, ballooning deficits due to two expanding wars and trillion-dollar tax cuts to the wealthy, as well as a jobless economic recovery. Sure, Democrats were disappointed and depressed looking forward to another four years of Bush in office, and made many empty threats to move to Canada. However, they were (by and large) not deluded about their chances of victory. I for one expected that Kerry would lose. Why? Because that’s what the polls said.
Republicans, however, preferred to ignore what the polls in the swing states were telling them, in favor of “vibrations” and “gut feelings” that Romney would pull it out, even pull it out big. It’s something they are very good at, having lived in an alternative reality for years:
“Ohio really did go to President Obama last night. And he really did win. And he really was born in Hawaii. And he really is, legitimately, President of the United States again. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics did not make up a fake unemployment rate last month. And the Congressional Research Service really can find no evidence that cutting taxes on rich people grows the economy. And the polls were not skewed to over-sample Democrats. And Nate Silver was not making up fake predictions about the election to make conservatives feel bad. Nate Silver was doing math. And climate change is real. And rape really does cause pregnancy sometimes. And evolution is a thing … And nobody’s taking away anyone’s guns. And taxes have not gone up. And the deficit is dropping, actually. And Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction. And the moon landing was real. And FEMA is not building concentration camps. And UN election observers are not taking over Texas. And moderate reforms of regulations on the insurance industry and the financial services industry are not the same thing as Communism.”
But this Obama victory does not appear to have shaken Republican faith in their make-believe world. Yes, there are Republican leaders such as Bobby Jindal, who has exhorted the GOP faithful to stop being the “stupid party,” and Lindsay Graham, who has warned that there are not enough “angry white males” to sustain the GOP in the future.
But I have seen how these guys operate, and I believe that the GOP activist base (read Tea Party) is so affixed to their Fox News and right-wing radio bubble that they will keep pushing the party further to the right.
The most recent evidence for this (setting aside the sore-loserish rants against society’s “takers” by failed GOP candidate Mitt Romney—more on that later): Last week Mother Jones reported that the GOP caucus in the Georgian state legislature had a briefing in October on “Delphi,” a technique of mind control by President Obama to “coerce Americans into accepting his plan for a United Nations-run communist dictatorship in which suburbanites will be forcibly relocated to cities.” This, the legislators were told, was part of Agenda 21, a conspiracy theory according to which the UN is pursuing a plan to force white suburbanites to move into inner-city urban (read “black”) neighborhoods and into tiny “hobbit homes” in the name of environmental sustainability:
Before you dismiss this as the actions of a few marginalized nutters in the Georgian legislature (in fact, the presenter had been kicked out of the Georgian Tea Party for his crazy conspiracy theories), note that Fox News Contributor Dick Morris offered a taped message to the group on the dangers of Agenda 21. On his website, he writes:
We do not literally believe that UN black helicopters are on their way to take over our country. But we are convinced that figuratively, they are on their way as the UN devises strategies to control our lives, tax us, and merge our sovereignty into one-world government.
Particularly with the waning of the culture wars and the U.S. becoming ever less white, the GOP is in danger of fading into irrelevance while retreating further into its “southern rump.”
My prediction is that these worrisome trends will continue, as the decades-old GOP coalition of poor southern whites, business class, and white Evangelicals comes further unglued. Particularly so long as the likes of Newt Gingrich, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and other unreconstructed race-baiters serve as the unofficial party leadership, the GOP is unlikely to right its ship any time soon.