If you follow politics, you probably noticed that polling of the presidential election has swung quite decidedly in the president's favor over the last few weeks. The Real Clear Politics polling average now has Obama up 4.1 points over Mitt Romney in national polls and Nate Silver's prediction model at his FiveThirtyEight blog put Barack Obama's odds of winning the election above 80% for the first time ever. Swing state polling out just this week seems to confirm the trend.
A new Quinnipiac University/New York Times/CBS poll of swing states of Ohio and Florida, show surprisingly strong leads for Obama. And the Gallup tracking poll, which has showed a near dead heat for almost the entirety of the campaign now shows Obama up 6 points. It's pretty hard to survey the polling data and not come to the conclusion that Barack Obama is beating Mitt Romney, that if the election were held today Barack Obama would win, and that Romney has a relatively steep, though certainly not insurmountable, uphill climb to victory. That is, of course, unless you operate in the alternate epistemic universe of right-wing media.
Bill O'Reilly: That begs the question, are these polls dishonest?Karl Rove: No we endow them with a false scientific precision they simply don't have.John Kasich: These polls I don't even pay attention to them...Dick Morris: Polling is very good at saying how you're gonna vote, its very bad at who's gonna vote, and the models these folks are using are crazy.Rush Limbaugh: These two polls today are designed to convince everybody this election is over.
We should note that Fox News's own polls have been pretty much in line with everyone else's, but it's not just commentators making the claim that the polls are rigged, the Romney campaign itself is now getting in on the act.
Eric Fehrnstrom: Some of these polls have been called into question because they assume a higher Democratic turnout in 2012 than we experienced in 2008.
For the record that's not true. But that doesn't really matter! Conservatives are spending hundreds, maybe thousands of man-hours (or maybe more appropriately bro-hours) writing long, tortured, pseudo-statistical take downs of every new poll, from a wide variety of outlets.
The proprietors of one of the go-to sites for this kind of analysis, Unskewedpolls.com told BuzzFeed that his traffic has gone from 15,000 hits a day to 200,000. And buoyed by the huge uptick, the site's founder Dean Chambers is planning an expansion.
"I've been hearing from people inside the Tea Party movement and Republican movement calling to say that they support what I'm doing," said Chambers. "It's given them a boost of confidence. They're glad to see that someone's questioning the credibility of national polls."
Now, to the conservatives and Republicans watching out there right now, I know what you're thinking: "It's not just people on the right who fall victim to this way of thinking." And you're right. In fact, I can recall with somewhat pathetic acuity spending hours on the internet in the waning days of the 2004 election searching out any and all articles or blog posts about why the lack of cell phones in the call lists of the major polls led to under-reporting John Kerry's strength. We all, as humans, are subject to confirmation bias, the urge to find information that reaffirms our ideological priors. But the problem is that the institutional structure of the American right slavishly caters to this disposition. The institutional and market incentives on the right all push towards feeding the audience what they want to hear and make a good buck while doing it, at the expense of actually giving them a handle on some basic aspects of reality.
Glenn Beck left Fox News to create his own hermetically sealed media environment, where he has his own website, radio show and TV network, where the latter routinely runs stories first reported by the former. While his audience has shrunk dramatically, NPR recently reported that business for Beck has never been better. His company The Blaze is expected to rake in more than $40 million this year. His radio contract just doubled - to $100 million over the next five years.
The increasingly claustrophobic parallel conservative universe isn't just something that lefties like myself have noted. Julian Sanchez, a CATO libertarian who moves in social circles of both liberals and conservative, coined the term "epistemic closure" to describe the alternate reality found in, as he put it, the "multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News" where "whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they're liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!) This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile."
I think we are seeing right now, just how prophetic Sanchez was. The political problems the Republican party are now facing -- losing ground not only in the general election but a wide swath of congressional races, is due, I think to the fact that the elites of that party have become so used to operating within the confines of conservatism they've forgotten how to persuade people that don't already agree with them.
The "We Built This" theme for the Republican Convention was a tone deaf, inside-joke that played off an intentionally misconstrued supposed gaffe that didn't really seem to resonate with the general electorate. Or look at the difference between the reaction to Clint Eastwood's speech inside the hall, where it was met with raucous laughter and enthusiastic applause... to outside the hall where it was met with something more like confused amusement. And the ultimate example of the costs of the conservative bubble are Mitt Romney's 47% comments, versions of which have become commonplace to the point of cliche in right-wing circles, and ones which Romney offered inside the safety and comfort of the conservative bubble, but have now leaked out to general populace where they are rightly found noxious.
In the song "Ten Crack Commandments," Biggie Smalls offered a set of rules for drug dealers who wanted to avoid the perils of the trade and one of them was a piece of old advice:"Never get high on your own supply." Same goes for political strategists: never confuse your own talking points for the truth, don't start believing that everyone out there in the voting booths are seeing the world the way you do. The GOP has, I think lost sight of this simple wisdom. They're smoking what they're dealing. It's a big part of why those polls numbers look the way they do... and good a reminder of the dysfunction and incompetence that happen when the people in charge only listen to themselves.