Epistemic closure and poll denialism

Updated
 
Epistemic closure and poll denialism
Epistemic closure and poll denialism

With six weeks to go in the 2012 presidential election, the polls look quite good for President Obama. All of the usual caveats still apply – there’s still time, Obama’s modest lead is not insurmountable, uncontrollable events are impossible to predict, etc. – but Mitt Romney and his supporters are understandably discouraged.

Well, at least some of them are. A surprising number of Republicans have decided to go a different route, arguing that all of the evidence pointing to Obama’s advantage is wrong.

The Romney campaign and other Republicans say polls showing President Obama with a significant lead over their candidate are inaccurate.

They argue many mainstream polls skew in Obama’s favor because of sample sizes that base 2012 turnout projections on 2008, when Democrats – and Hispanics, blacks and young voters in particular – turned out in record numbers.

“I don’t think [the polls] reflect the composition of what 2012 is going to look like,” Romney pollster Neil Newhouse said in an interview.

Frustration that polls are skewed in favor of Obama has escalated among some on the right in recent weeks. One website,www.unskewedpolls.com, recently began re-weighting the mainstream polls to closer track the demographic assumptions of conservative polling outlet Rasmussen Reports. The re-weighted polls all show Romney ahead in the race, with leads of between 3 and 11 percentage points.

So, every national poll released over the last several weeks – literally, all of them – show Obama leading Romney. Unsatisfied with these results, the right has decided to fiddle with the figures, and wouldn’t you know it, the new-and-improved polls all show Romney leading Obama.

It’s not just random cranks (see Morris, Dick) arguing all of the polls are unreliable; this idea is repeated widely in Republican circles.

There are three main problems to this line of thought: (1) there’s no reason to think the polls are skewed; (2) even the Romney campaign doesn’t seriously believe the polls are wrong; and (3) epistemic closure is probably helping poll denialism.

Let’s take these one at a time. First, pollsters realize their livelihoods are predicated on getting the best possible results, and the notion that every major news organization is deliberately publishing bogus poll results is pretty silly.

Not every Republican pollster finds fault with the publicly-available surveys. Dan Judy, vice president of North Star Opinion Research in Alexandria, Va., told National Journal, “A lot of the media organizations this cycle seem to have gotten better.”

“Most of the media polls are good, professional polls,” Judy added, “in terms of making sure that the way their samples are constructed are fairly consistent.”

Second, we know Republicans, in their heart of hearts, don’t seriously believe the polls are skewed against them. If they did, Republicans would be feeling very optimistic about Romney’s chances, and clearly, they’re not. On the contrary, GOP officeholders, candidates, and pundits seem quite dispirited with 42 days to go.

Indeed, if internal Republican polling, which presumably wouldn’t be part of the larger conspiracy, showed Romney with a consistent lead, he and his campaign wouldn’t feel the need to constantly reboot itself with new messages. Just the opposite is true – if they were confident they’re winning, Team Romney wouldn’t see the need to change course at all.

And yet, the only consistency to the Republican campaign right now is how inconsistent it is, constantly trying new messages, attacks, and themes, hoping to find one that might stick.

And finally, it’s worth appreciating why the right is having this reaction to all of the recent polls. I suspect epistemic closure has a lot to do with it. Remember, for many Republicans, it’s extremely easy to avoid objective information – they can read a conservative newspaper in the morning, listen to conservative talk radio during the day, come home and watch Fox News before going to bed.

These folks have very clear, preconceived ideas, which are rarely challenged. They know, with certainty, that President Obama is the single worst president in American history, whose every move has failed miserably in every possible way.

And so when every national poll shows Obama winning, it’s gut-check time – they can either believe Obama’s political standing is fairly strong or they can believe there’s a grand conspiracy involving rascally news organizations and biased pollsters. Take a wild guess which option is winning.

We’re talking about voters who are accustomed to being told what they want to hear, with every passing day reinforcing those beliefs with more evidence of how right they are. Is it any wonder they see polls challenging their assumptions, and reflexively assume the polls must be wrong?

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Epistemic closure and poll denialism

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