So. The election is over.
For inveterate poll-watchers like myself, it’s fascinating–if a bit anticlimactic–to see a years’ worth of wild speculation finally replaced with one single, incontrovertible set of data–the final electoral map. No more speculating on whether polls oversample certain demographics or how voter-ID laws will affect the outcome; the outcome is now known. This abrupt switch from entirely abstract guesswork to entirely concrete fact is seen practically nowhere except elections and sports; as such, it provides an interesting glimpse into the difference between reality and peoples’ perception of it.
By which I mean, we now have proof that conservatives are completely disconnected from reality.
I’m not talking here about ideology and values; what you believe to be right or wrong can’t be proven or disproven (although, if you believe something to be wrong because of its consequences, then whether those consequences really happen can be subject to proof). So, for instance, the election doesn’t prove that conservatives are wrong about gay marriage. It does, however, prove that conservatives are wrong about the general population’s opinions towards gay marriage, since common conservative wisdom stated that gay marriage would never be legalized by popular vote; Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins still claims that “contrary to what the Left will say, the narrow margin for victory in these four states offers plenty of evidence that a solid majority of Americans still opposes same-sex ‘marriage.'” Losing four out of four proves that you have popular support? It sounds like any result would convince Tony Perkins that people agreed with him.
But let’s return to the presidential election. Sabermetrician-turned-psephologist (there are two words you don’t get to use very often) Nate Silver, whose blog, FiveThirtyEight, rose to fame through his accurate prediction of the 2008 election, faced some harsh criticism near the end of this cycle from conservatives who balked more and more as his estimate of Obama’s win chance rose from around 60% after Denver to a final value of 90%. At the end of October, when Obama had picked up the momentum that would carry him through to Election Day, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough railed that Silver’s current estimate of 73% was ridiculous:
And 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.
And then there was Dean Chambers. Like many other conservatives, he believed that Silver’s model introduced bias by weighting different polls to produce the result he wanted. And how do we know that Silver wanted to influence the election for Obama? Quoth Chambers*:
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. In fact, Silver could easily be the poster child for the New Castrati in both image and sound.
You just can’t trust those skinny guys. Luckily, Chambers runs his own, bias-free election model, Unskewed Polls. Let’s see how his model fares against Silver’s. Their final November 5 predictions are shown at left. I’ve labeled the graphs, although I doubt I really need to.
As poll watchers already know, election night was a triumph for Silver and statistics nerds everywhere, as he correctly predicted 50 out of 50 states (his electoral college prediction, being an aggregate, was actually 20 points short). Meanwhile, Chambers was off by a humbling 69 electoral votes.
But there’s more to this than “Silver was right, Chambers was wrong.” Silver made a careful prediction, using a logical algorithm to weigh the different factors and laying out his reasoning every day on his blog, noting any changes from the previous day’s prediction and explaining why it happened. Meanwhile, Chambers only gives a vague description of a variety of factors without any indication to where or how much each factor came into play. Chambers’ map, in fact, doesn’t look like a prediction at all; it looks like a calculated effort to create a plausible-looking win for Romney while giving him the fewest necessary swing states.
The best evidence for this is Unskewed Polls’ previous prediction, from October 25, when Chambers produced the truly remarkable map shown here.
Nobody could possibly mistake that map for an actual prediction, right? It has Oregon going for Romney. Oregon, which hasn’t been won by a Republican since 1984, and which Obama won by 16 points in 2008. Romney wasn’t even campaigning there! This is obviously just partisan cheerleading. Then, the day before the election, Chambers published the map shown above to maintain some credibility while still promoting Romney. Theoretically he could pass the second map off as a revision based on recent polling data, similar to Silver’s procedure, but curiously, he doesn’t even try to. The methodology instead only notes that there are 11 disputed swing states (still including some long shots like Michigan) and 39 states where the results are agreed upon…including Oregon, New Mexico, or Minnesota. I couldn’t find any explanation for his choice to award those states to Romney in the first prediction or to subsequently change his prediction. He seems to have just realized that his first prediction made him look ridiculous and attempted to sweep it under the rug.
Chambers had to know that his prediction was ludicrously wrong; likewise, at least some the many conservative pundits who predicted a Romney landslide had to realize what a long shot it was. But some–most infamously, Karl Rove–really seemed to believe it, right up until it became mathematically impossible on election night. Why? What motivates people to cling to a prediction they know to be wrong?
I believe there are two primary reasons. First, there’s the obvious effort to influence the election via the bandwagon effect. Second, I think we’re seeing the effects of the ever-more-stringent Republican demands for party loyalty. Suggesting that Romney might lose, after all, is tantamount to an attack on him as a candidate, since it suggests that he lacks the chops to actually win the vote. There’s a degree of pride in statements that the results would be a surprise, or in predicting that Romney would win a state that most projections gave to Obama. For instance, Dick Morris was clearly trying to set himself above other predictors when he said about his prediction of a 325-213 Romney victory:
It will be the biggest surprise in recent American political history. It will rekindle the whole question on why the media played this race as a nailbiter where in fact Romney’s going to win by quite a bit.
Anti-intellectualism plays into this, showing up both in the attacks on Nate Silver and in the tendency to base predictions on a gut feeling, rather than poll data, such as Rush Limbaugh’s statement that “common sense tells me this election isn’t gonna be close” (Limbaugh also cited the odd “Redskins rule,” which bases the winner on the outcome of a Washington Redskins game). So can the right’s ties to evangelicalism, as in Glenn Beck’s assertion that God put Romney behind in the polls so that Romney’s victory would clearly be a miracle. Either way, though, the core principle remains: Find a reason why Romney will win, and if there isn’t one, look harder.
In other words, party loyalty encourages Republicans to refuse to believe obvious reality. And, as they have just discovered, this is never worth it. Because reality intrudes. It stubbornly insists on happening just as it was always going to regardless of how many equivocations or justifications you make. The only difference is that you’re unprepared.
Although I don’t expect it will, we can always hope that the victory of the nerds will cause conservatives to rethink their out-of-hand dismissals of statisticians, scientists, economists, and everyone else who uses data to suggest that common conservative wisdom is wrong. Maybe global warming is happening. Maybe fracking does have a negative impact on the land. Maybe cutting taxes on the highest earners doesn’t grow the economy. And maybe acknowledging these facts and crafting a platform around them is wiser than clinging to a position contradicted by plain evidence.
We can only hope.
*This links to a Gawker article, rather than Chambers’ original (which is linked at the beginning of the paragraph), because Chambers later deleted that paragraph and apologized. After the election. Almost as if, had Silver been wrong, Chambers would have redoubled the “you can’t trust femmy guys” line of attack.
**I’ve linked this HuffPo article, rather than FiveThirtyEight (linked in the body text), because FiveThirtyEight’s actual prediction maps are shown in a sidebar, rather than in an article, and therefore will probably become unavailable eventually.