The Dick Morris Syndrome

Greg Sargent has an interesting post up reporting a discussion with Obama’s pollster, Joel Berenson, that revealed he was not about to give any great credence to the new Bloomberg poll from Selzer & Co.–you know, the one that showed Obama blowing out to a 13-point lead over “out-of-touch” Mitt Romney. The money quote from Berenson:

“The only thing that’s bouncing around are the public polls,” Benenson said. “The electorate doesn’t bounce around like that. It’s more static than the noise in all these polls. If you watch the electorate over time, they don’t jump up and down. This is a process.”

“Movement tends to come in small increments, and people ought to be mindful of that,” Benenson continued. “We had 45 different polls over a 42 day period. It’s an industry unto itself.”

So why does the commentariat ignore what it knows about the underlying dynamics of the race and overreact to every outlier?

I can’t speak for everyone, but I’d say many progressives are simply trying to counter-balance triumphalist spin from the Right, based not just on polling data, but on what is a psychologically important conviction that Obama’s been toast virtually from the day he was first elected.

You know the drill: Obama only won the presidency of this “center-right nation” because (a) George W. Bush betrayed his conservative principles; (b) John McCain did the same thing, further “discouraging” the GOP base; (c) Obama promised to abandon liberalism and adopt conservative policies at least 50% of the time; (d) ACORN, having already wrecked the housing market and brought on the global financial collapse, committed massive voter fraud; (e) the liberal news media (plotting at JournoList) turned Obama into a national hero and disguised his radical past, etc. etc. The 2010 elections, according to this account of things, confirmed the true wishes of the American people, who are prepared to eject the socialist, un-American, Christ-hating foe in November.

Thus, every time there is a short-term polling trend adverse to Obama, great lusty cheers of impending victory are raised in most precincts of the Right. And it’s annoying as hell.

There’s a natural temptation to spin right back in response to what might be called the Dick Morris Syndrome among conservatives. Indeed, some folk think they have an obligation to out-spin the other side lest credulous MSM types follow the lead of whichever side is spinning the most boldly.

Questions of integrity aside, we need to remind ourselves that expectations of victory in June will have little or no impact on how people ultimately vote. If conservatives want to deceive themselves into believing God is on their side and victory is certain, let them do so. To an alarming extent, they feel no particular compunction to admit it when they turn out to be wrong, and/or they come up with a new, outlandish theory for why they lost. I don’t want to behave like that. It’s very likely to be a close election, and of course Obama can lose, as can Mitt Romney, as he reminds us often with his uncanny ability to make unforced errors. Public opinion research is interesting, and can often tell us things we need to know, so don’t put me in the category of anti-polling know-nothings. But Berenson’s right: particularly at this moment of American history, public opinion moves slowly if at all, and it’s unlikely anything happening right now is going to be decisive. Leave the Dick Morris Syndrome to Dick Morris.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.