Most statistical models are now showing that Obama will win this election and that the odds of him doing so are shockingly high.
Still, with less than 24 hours left until voters choose their next president, Republican reactions to these statistical projections and recent polling reports have been extremely negative and incendiary. Many are decrying bias in the polls and models, often resorting to name-calling, rather than arguing the results on their statistical merit.
Nate Silver, the statistical wizard at the New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog, has undergone heavy criticism from the right because his statistical models did not line up with their perceptions of reality. Conservative pollsters and talking heads have accosted Silver for daring to buck the horse-race narrative and openly declaring that Obama has an overwhelmingly good chance to win (86.3% as of this morning).
Joe Scarborough, former GOP congressman and host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” said that “anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue, they should be kept away from typewriters, computers, laptops and microphones for the next 10 days, because they’re jokes.”
Considering the important difference between opinions polls and statistical projections seemingly lost on Scarborough (polls measure opinion, projections predict outcomes), one might find that to be an amusing statement. What makes it scary is that such ignorance of basic math isn’t an anomaly, it’s the norm.
Dean Chambers, the right-wing warrior who took it upon himself to “unskew” the polls by making up numbers, said that Silver’s numbers aren’t to be trusted because “Nate Silver is a man of very small stature, a thin and effeminate man with a soft-sounding voice that sounds almost exactly like the 'Mr. New Castrati' voice used by Rush Limbaugh on his program.” Chambers concluded that Silver was clearly cooking the books since, “his political analyses are average at best and his projections, at least this year, are extremely biased in favor of the Democrats.”
Reality is a cruel, cruel mistress.
The funny thing is, compared to the rest of the projection pollsters, Silver is downright pessimistic. The Princeton Election Consortium has Obama’s odds of winning re-election at over 98% as of this morning. Of the five leading statistical projections, only one conservative pollster has Obama scoring below 300 electoral votes (but still winning).
It’s been quite the adventure watching the pendulum of Republican rhetoric swing back and forth, depending on the poll of the day. A few weeks ago, when Romney all of a sudden looked alive in swing state polls, conservatives came out of the woodwork to extol the merit of numbers. Amazing how things change when your candidate suddenly finds his pulse, isn’t it?
Predictably, when Romney’s numbers tanked again, the conservatives came out dismissing math and statistics as a smoke and mirrors practice that is best reserved for fortune tellers and tarot card readers.
In his column last week, conservative columnist David Brooks wrote that “if there’s one thing we know, it’s that even experts with fancy computer models are terrible at predicting human behavior.”
Karl Rove, writing in the Wall Street Journal, contended that the numbers supporting Obama were misleading and argued that “the anecdotal and intangible evidence — from crowd sizes to each side's closing arguments — give the sense that the odds favor Mr. Romney.”
The GOP’s cognitive dissonance and “numbers are sorcery” rhetoric has had predictable results. While the percentage of the public that thinks President Obama will secure re-election ranges from 49% to 63%, only 17% of Republicans think Obama will win. Conservative news outlets and political blogs are replete with both articles and comments decrying the “liberal media” and the “pollster conspiracy” trying to “steal the election.” Hell, even a handful of PolicyMic pundits are trying to find a justification for why the numbers supporting Obama are not to be trusted.
This level of willful ignorance is harmful both to the political dialogue and any hopes for bipartisanship post-election. If Republican voters are conditioned to believe that the election was somehow stolen by the magic of numbers rather than lost by a candidate whose policies are stuck in the Gilded Age, the GOP base will only lurch further to the right and we will all suffer for it.