BREAKING NEWS: DATA IS MORE ACCURATE THAN MAKING SHIT UP

Posted in Election 2012 on November 8th, 2012 by Ed

It's not pleasant to watch amateurs try their hand at your profession. If you're a doctor or nurse it must be difficult to watch "medical dramas" like E.R. because, well, you'd be distracted constantly by how ridiculous and inaccurate it is. The phrase "That's not how it really works!" would be at the tip of your tongue throughout. Ditto for lawyers watching procedural crime dramas, and so on. Sure, you can accept that fiction involves a good deal of artistic license but you also want everyone to know that, no, doctors don't really do things like House does.

The last six months have been excruciating for me at times because during elections a lot of people talk about polling. There are not many things I know well enough to approach the level of "expert", but public opinion data and its collection is one. A few people understand it vaguely and have some combination of knowledge and folk wisdom. Most people, to put it mildly, do not know the theory and methods of polling from their ass from a hole in the ground. The great thing about politics, though, is that everyone's an expert. Aided by college dropouts with AM Radio talk shows and ineptly designed websites, it turns out that people are more than willing to lecture us on how polling really works. I am so grateful to all the people who have tried to explain it to me this year.

And so we had a campaign season full of gems like "Unskewed Polls" that corrected an imaginary flaw in polling methodology, producing some outstanding predictions in the process.

People who could not explain the concepts of random sampling, weighting, or confidence intervals to save their souls were eagerly spreading the news that they had figured out how the Liberal Media was rigging the system to hide the latent popularity of one Willard Romney. They're stuffing the samples with Democrats to prop up the Usurper! Spread the news!

I certainly understood this narrative; when losing an election, campaigns must do something to keep the base fired up, to convince them that the odds of success are higher than they are. I get it. You don't want people to give up. "We think the election is closer than the polls indicate" is not an uncommon or inappropriate sentiment in elections. However, on Tuesday evening it became clear that this was something else. Rather than a white lie one tells to keep up appearances, the idea that all of the polls (except, curiously, Rasmussen's dreck showing Romney in the lead) are wrong is something these people internalized. They made the timeless error of believing their own bullshit.

Because the originators of the Skewed Theory were careful to decorate it with all the trappings of pseudoscience and half-assed logic, many Republicans appear to have believed it. It is precisely the kind of thing that stupid people think sounds really intelligent. This is why we saw so many Republicans crushed – positively despondent, even – on Tuesday evening in an election that every available data point predicted would unfold exactly as it did. To see the stunned, shocked, and horrified looks on the faces of the Fox News on-air personalities was legitimately surprising to me. Did all of these people, some of whom are quite highly educated, honestly believe this ludicrous ration of shit they were serving these viewers? Did they really not know that Romney was going to lose?

I am not using hyperbole here. Taking the median of the aggregated statewide polls correctly predicted the presidential election outcome in 50 out of 50 states. Not 45. Not 49. Fifty. It also nailed 31 of the 32 Senate races. The right's new favorite target for their adolescent bullying, Nate Silver, basically got every last goddamn thing about this election right.

Watching Karl Rove's complete meltdown on Fox, during which even the other Fox people openly told him he was insane and suggested (seriously) that he get psychological help, highlights the key to understanding all of this: the complete inability of Republicans and conservatives in general to accept reality. Namely the reality that A) lots of people like Barack Obama, B) most of us do not see the world as Republicans see it, and C) Obama could actually, legitimately be the President of the United States. It simply can't be true. There must be some explanation (Occam's Razor be damned) that explains it. And they will keep searching until they find it.

Republicans who were stunned on Tuesday were stunned for only one reason: they refused to believe the facts right in front of them and instead chose to believe a bunch of nonsense they made up to suit their ideological preferences. We are now on a string of five elections – 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012 – that were predicted with almost pinpoint accuracy by pre-election polling. Polling is accurate. In fact it is getting almost creepily accurate. The people who conduct polls know what they're doing, and the people who interpret them do not need the insight and wisdom of Karl Rove or "QStarNews". We will go through this song and dance again in 2016, when everyone will have forgotten that the polls weren't so Skewed after all and the same nonsense will be trotted out in service of the next Republican who isn't performing as well in reality as he is in the imaginations of his supporters.