Why Right-Wingers Need ‘Skewed Polls’ Conspiracy Theory for Romney to Win -- And Even More If He Loses
Karl Rove uses white board on 'The O'Reilly Factor' to illustrate his polling theory.
If you listen to right-wing pundits, the entire political science establishment, in cahoots with mainstream media, are circling their wagons around their favored candidate, and obscuring either the inevitability of his failure or a more sinister outcome behind a font of false information. The current polling numbers that show President Barack Obama pulling ahead of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney are cooked, they say.
It’s a laughable premise, of course -- the media are hardly kind to liberals or Democrats -- but this is no random theory dreamed up by an unhinged wingnut. It’s a carefully crafted narrative, and one that may hold the only hope Republicans have of winning the 2012 presidential race. Why? Because with an increasingly shrinking slice of the electorate undecided on its presidential candidate, the outcome of election 2012 will likely hinge almost entirely on which candidate gets to the polls all the voters who lean his way. Polls that depress the spirits of right-wing voters could easily depress their turnout, as well.
In June, I attended a
training session conducted by Ralph Reed, to whom turnout among white, evangelical Christians has been entrusted by the billionaires who back his Faith and Freedom Coalition. (Find AlterNet's original reporting on Reed's turnout operation here and here.)
“So what I'm telling you is, ignore the polls for the next 145 days,” Reed told his faithful. “Don't pay any attention to them. With all due respect to my dear friends who are pollsters -- Frank Luntz, Glen Bolger...Scott Rasmussen -- I love these guys; they're smart. But between now and November, ignore them -- all of them, their pollsters, our pollsters. And I'll tell ya why...”
Reed went on to explain that if, as he said he expected to do, he managed to significantly increase the turnout of social conservatives from what it was in 2008, all the polling models will prove to have been wrong, having oversampled Democrats and undercounted his core constituency. It’s claim echoed as recently as three days ago on the Fox News Channel’s The O’Reilly Factor by Karl Rove, who together with Reed and anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, is described by Bill Moyers as a de facto leader of the Republican Party. Reed worked with Rove on the 2000 and 2004 Bush campaigns, and the two remain friendly.
Asked by host Bill O’Reilly if the polls -- particularly the CBS/New York Times poll the two discussed -- were “dishonest,” Rove declined to go quite that far. “Look,” he said, "we endow them with a false scientific precision they simply don't have.”
But Rove didn’t have to go all conspiratorial. That work is outsourced to Dean Chambers, an obscure blogger with a pop-up Web site, as well the folks at Breitbart.com, whose John Nolte argues that media outlets and their pollsters are deliberately under-counting independent voters to Romney’s detriment. “But the reality is that the way Independents are now voting simply doesn’t mix with the media’s tidy narrative that Obama is running away with the election in key battleground states,” Nolte writes.
The genius of the claim is the way in which it takes advantage of the deep distrust of all establishment institutions that right-wing master builders have cultivated for decades in their laborers.
In the alternate universe occupied by the right, there’s a dark conspiracy afoot -- one in which the steadfast conservative exists in an undulating world that conspires to confound him with unwelcome information: his big car is melting the polar ice caps, women are bringing home the bacon and, four years ago, a black man won the presidency, fair and square. Information that so disturbs challenges his comfort level must surely be wrong.
Don’t even try to mention the wastefulness of the incandescent light bulb.
Since the inception of the ironically named Fox News Channel, right-wing media consumers have been convinced that every news source outside of their favored outlets pushes lies designed to destroy their beloved country with a collectivist agenda, one that favors those perceived as unworthy of partaking in the nation’s bounty. (These “unworthy,” of course, are often non-white and/or non-heterosexual-male.)
To those of the paranoid, xenophobic mindset first identified by Richard Hofstadter in the 1960s, it’s hardly a stretch to believe it when they’re told that the very polls that are used by media to assess the state of political contests are skewed to favor the liberal candidate, especially when the candidate is a black man named Obama.
Too many Democrats?
Although Reed has been hammering the bad-polling-model theme for years in his workshops, the narrative went public in conspiratorial form on August 28, when Dean Chambers, a right-wing blogger, launched a Web site called UnskewedPolls.com, based on the notion that nearly all the national polling operations were including too high a percentage of self-described Democrats in the sample groups that pollsters use as their stand-ins for the total electorate when doing their surveys.
If pollsters were including too many Democrats in their sample groups, went the reasoning, then all those surveys by major polling operations showing Obama breaking ahead? Wrong, wrong, wrong. In fact, Chambers claimed, when you “unskew” those polls, Romney is winning big in the alternate universe. Just go to Chambers’ Web site and look at his yummy, sauteed numbers.
“[A] series of swing state polls done at the state level by mainstream media outlets reported yesterday and the day before were so heavily skewed that they are raising questions about the credibility of the media outlets and polling firms involved in them,” Chambers wrote on September 27.
There’s only one problem with the Chambers model, though. His determination of the percentages of Democrats and Republicans he believes should be reflected in a polling sample rest on a cherry-picked data point: the percentage of self-described Democrats and Republicans from a single day of a tracking poll conducted by Rasmussen, an organization whose polls traditionally skew Republican. As Michael Tomasky points out at The Daily Beast, the self-described party identification of a survey subject is a fluid thing -- more an attitude than a demographic point. A respondent who voted Republican in 2008 but is now leaning toward Obama might tell the pollster in August 2012 that she is a Democrat or an independent. So, party identification percentages are fluid figures, changing from week to week.
Two weeks after Chambers' site launched, Rove jumped in, reluctant on the surface to declare the purported polling “problem” a conspiracy, likely confident that other players, such as the aforementioned Breitbart.com, to do it for him. (A Republican operative with his hands on the money spigots of several political action committees, including Crossroads GPS, Rove also conveniently collects a paycheck from Fox News, where he is a paid contributor.)
Soon, Fox & Friends, the morning program at Fox News Channel, wrapped itself in the Chambers conspiracy, even though it impugned the validity of Fox’s own polling.
“Are the swing states really swinging towards the president?” asked Fox & Friends’ Steve Doocy on the show's September 27th edition. “Or could there possibly be some skewing going on by the media, the left-based mainstream media?” (TPM has an amusing mash-up video here.)
Doocy also suggests that the media aim to put a damper on Romney’s fundraising with its alleged poll-skewing.
What the right wins from the “skewed polls” conspiracy
The number one reason for the “skewed polls” narrative is, as mentioned earlier, the need to create a high level of right-wing turnout in early voting and on election day. And if Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, working alongside other powerhouse groups such as the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, manages to exceed expectations in the turnout of right-wing voters, Reed will have created a self-fulfilling prophecy. (See? The polling models were wrong.) Fair enough.
But there are benefits to be gained, as well, from the evolution of a theory to a conspiracy. If the media are believed to have deliberately over-sampled Democrats in their polling, then any suppression of Democratic votes, particularly among non-whites (which has become job one of a significant portion of the red-state legislative class) will be easily dismissed in the right’s Milky-White Way galaxy as left-wing hysteria.
Most chillingly, should Romney lose the election, the result of such a conspiracy theory will be to cast doubt on the outcome of the election itself, reinforcing the false notion, ever popular on the right, that the presidency of Barack Obama is not constitutionally legitimate. In the mind of the unhinged, as AlterNet's Joshua Holland suggests, that’s a license to violence.