Conservative Pollsters Grasping At Straws

In the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Midnight Sun,” a cataclysm has sent the Earth hurtling toward the Sun. As the planet grows nearer to the star, society is slowly breaking down, and yet, oddly, people try to hold onto hope. “I hear it’s a bit cooler in Toronto,” they tell each other, despite the ridiculousness of it. The alternative to hope is to give up, and people are bad at that.

I thought of that episode when I first heard about, a website run by hardcore GOP partisan Dean Chambers. The site attempts to fix bias in polling by re-weighting the polls of the Gallups, Reuters and Rasmussens of the world, only with a more conservative partisan breakdown.

Chambers lays out his argument in a refiguring of a Washington Post poll:

The survey is skewed and an “un-skewed” analysis of their numbers showed Romney likely has a 50 to 43 lead right now. This difference of a skewed-result tie as opposed to an “un-skewed” 7 point lead for Romney has serious implications for all the conclusions drawn from the survey results.

In this survey, the sampling is based on only 24 percent responding as Republicans, while Democrats were 33 percent, Independents were 36 and the remaining 7 percent responded otherwise. No serious observer of American politics or pollster believes that Republicans make up only 24 percent of the population. Is it precisely this under-sampling of Republicans, and proportional over-sampling of Democrats, that skews this survey.

Unsurprisingly, if you assume more Republicans will vote, Mitt Romney does better. While the RealClearPolitics poll of polls has President Barack Obama leading Mitt Romney by 3.7 percent, UnSkewed Polls gives Romney a whopping 7.8 percent lead.

The methodology of Chambers is, to put it nicely, spurious. Chambers’ weighting is based on the partisan breakdown Rasmussen Reports showed for the 2010 election, a wave election that strongly favored the GOP. Additionally, Rasmussen’s party ID skews conservative. Scott Rasmussen himself told Buzzfeed that “you cannot compare partisan weighting from one polling firm to another.”

That hasn’t stopped Republicans from embracing UnSkewedPolls. Texas Gov. Rick Perry approvingly tweeted a link to the site. Drudge and Pajamas Media have also linked to Chambers.

It’s easy to deride this as yet another attempt by the right to ignore facts. While there’s a long time until election day, Barack Obama appears to hold a small but stable lead in the polling. The Romney camp certainly doesn’t appear to be acting as if they hold a 7-point lead. Just another day inside the conservative bubble.

That is unfair to Chambers, however, because Democrats have shown just as much willingness to will away bad polling. When calamity is staring you in the face, it’s much easier to hold on to a glimmer of hope.

Optimism Bias

In 2010, as Republicans were rolling up big leads in the generic congressional ballot polls, Democrats told themselves a simple story. Polls that did not call cell phones tended to tilt toward the GOP. Therefore, the polls were wrong. Democrats and Republicans were tied. The Democrats could hold on to the House after all!

Needless to say, the polls were not wrong. The GOP took back the House. Yes, polls that call cell phones may be slightly more Democrat-friendly than polls that don’t, but the effect was not so large as to make the polls invalid.

Were the Democrats in 2010 engaged in wishful thinking, just as Republicans who cite UnSkewedPolls are today? Of course they were. Democrats and Republicans may have significant policy differences, but they are both human. Humans, alas, are not strictly logical. We are hard-wired to be optimistic, to try to find hope in hopelessness.

This makes sense. If our forebearers were pessimistic, we as a species wouldn’t have gotten very far. When climate change was whipsawing humans in Africa back and forth between drought and plenty, it took an optimistic outlook, a hope that things would get better, in order for us to make it through the cataclysms.

As we are optimistic by nature, it makes it very hard to view a potential loss with clear-eyed acceptance. We seek a way around it, a way that victory can still be snatched from the jaws of defeat.

Ignoring the polls is an easy way to do this. Polls are, after all, as much art as science. Because we live in an age when it’s tough to get a truly random sample of people just by calling, pollsters are required to weight their responses based on a variety of factors, from party identification to gender to race to income. How they do that can affect the outcome of a poll. This means that anyone who wants to ignore a bad poll has a ready-made excuse — the polls are weighted wrong. If they were right, my candidate would lead.

Of course, polling firms have nothing but accurate polling to recommend them, and so they put a great deal of time and effort into getting their weighting right; the numbers are not just picked out of the air, or adjusted based on political bias, with the possible exception of Rasmussen Polls. By and large, polling is reasonably accurate, especially when looked at as an aggregate.

That won’t stop partisans from ignoring bad ones, though. Humans look for that glimmer of hope, and given an avalanche of bad news, it’s understandable that Republicans would be trying to spin themselves into a lead. It doesn’t mean they’re right of course — the UnSkewedPolls site is completely wrong. But they’ll know that come November; until then, they’ll be holding on to hope however they can.


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Michael M.
Michael T5 years ago

They really are grasping at straws Nate Silver and one other site show Obama carrying 295 electoral votes. Unless some of those members of the electoral college are on the take the election is in the bag for the Presidents reelection.

Winn Adams
Winn A5 years ago

Don't trust ANY Republicans.

Ann G.
Ann G5 years ago

I really appreciate that you discussed the way both Democrats and Republicans have issues with polling. It's really important to know when your own party isn't perfect, and you did a great job with that here.

Michael G.
Michael T5 years ago

That's so funny Paula. You know what?

It sounds like you are grasping at straws.

Paula M.
Paula M5 years ago

If conservatives lose it will be for the right reasons – because we told truths that the electorate was not willing to hear, while Democrats pandered to the voters with pleasant-sounding lies. But I think that the American people are better than that, and will choose the party willing to make the hard choices to ensure our fiscal solvency. I think they will also see through the Democrats’ desperate attempt to excuse their atrocious record of governance, but the critical point will be that Republicans are serious about dealing with the most critical issues facing our nation and the Democrats are not.

Janice B., the story that Paul Ryan refers to Romney as “stench” is untrue. It comes from a progressive “satire” article which was subsequently taken up by the credulous left-leaning media.

Robert K.
Robert K5 years ago

Why do you think Carter was a failure? He balanced the budget twice, was this close || to solving the Middle East problem which Reagan than screwed up. Reagan's people bribed the Iranis to hold the hostages until Carter was out of office. That's treason dude, and is what Iran-Contra was all about.

Carter did have one glaring fault for a president, he was honest.

Michael G.
Michael T5 years ago

Speaking of a failure. How about this

Pants On Fire Mitt Romney tells 616 Lies in 33 Weeks

Robert K.
Robert K5 years ago

While both Romney and Ryan give off an unholy stench, it wasn't Ryan who said that. Someone at the RNC said that if Ryan runs in 2016 he'll have to combat the stench of running with Ryan.

All conservatives lie as certainly as they breathe so it behooves us to get our facts straight.

janice b.
jan b5 years ago

When Ryan is referring to Romney behind his back as "Stench". Ryan is lying every time he speaks. The republicans cooked their own campaign this time too by making such terrible choices. They ignored candidate Hutchinson entirely who at least didn't have the garbage that Romney-Ryan has.
Then you have the republican party itself....with half of it the teaparty-John Birchers and the other half the American version of the Taliban. They are losers with a new platform no one really likes except the 1% and some of the base who doesn't know any better.

Paul B.
Paul B5 years ago

I recall an election back in 1980 when a failure running for re-election was significantly leading his opponent, some "actor" from CA at this same point in time. Actually he was well ahead into October.

then came the debates, a failing economy, the hostage situation, which sounds eerily like we are today. Dems were celebrating victory. They awoke one early Nov morning to witness one of the greatest landslide upsets in election history.

Like then, the media is hyping this election as trusted liberal proponents with a lot invested in propping up Obama, hailing his re-election, so of course will do whatever they can to make it happen, to save face.

All I'm saying is, "It ain't over til it's over!!!"