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The era of partisan polling

By Elvin Lim


It is tempting now that the election returns are in for us to want to plow forward and forget the spectacular silliness we just traversed. But before we move on, it is critical that we call out those who had predicted a huge Romney victory, among them Dick MorrisMichael Barone, and Karl Rove. Ours is the era of partisan polling, and it is intellectually dishonest and bad for democracy. When Karl Rove held out in disbelief that his predictions were entirely off on Fox News, and Megyn Kelley had to make the awkward walk backstage to the Decision Desk to “verify” their decision, it became abundantly clear that wishful thinking cannot be a substitute for objective reasoning.

This was madness the electorate should not have had to bear. The election was never as close as many had suggested. Barack Obama was ahead in the electoral college most of the last year, and there was never a moment when he possessed less paths to victory than did Romney. Rove cashed in all his credibility from his previous predictions by cooking up a cockamamie story about how all the polls were wrong because they assume a 2008 turnout rate and demographic. However, one of two candidates remained the same between 2008 and 2012; this basic logic of historical induction was enough to convince most posters that 2008 was a useful baseline to make predictions. And they were right. If anything, pollsters had underestimated the turnout and size of the Latino vote.

Then we had the claims about how Barack Obama was underperforming in early voting returns. Well, he won by 53 percent last time. He had 3 percentage points to play with! Denial is one thing, reporting wishful thinking in the name of fairness and balance is another.

Piercing through this wishful thinking is a necessary epistemological step Republicans must take before they even begin to soul-search and rebuild the party. We all make the assumption, often wrongly, that everyone thinks like us. But to operate in the world we must constantly check this instinct, surveying the alternative data and opinions around us. A personal intuition is not a collective summation. Yet already, some Tea Partiers are doubling down on their insistence that the Republicans should have picked a more orthodox candidate. Fortunately, there are voices of reason amidst them.

Obama has won a second term, with an electoral college victory larger than both of the ones his predecessor earned. Obamacare will not be repealed and it will be implemented, and so “greatness” is now within Obama’s reach. He has shown that he is not shy about taking on big problems. The national debt and immigration reform are two of them. “Tonight, you voted for action, not politics as usual,” Obama said on election night. He will be true to his word, though not everyone will like his actions.

Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears on the OUPblog regularly.

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