Sadistic Polling Gods

If you didn’t know better, you might think that the American Public Opinion Research biz was temporarily under the control of sadistic supernatural imps determined to force Republicans to do something many of them are (and I use the term in the clinical sense) hysterically determined not to do: admit that they are in danger of losing this election.

Here’s Nate Cohn of TNR on the latest battleground state polls:

Obama’s DNC bounce has cascaded across the battleground states, endangering Romney’s position in nearly every contested state. Yesterday, polls released by the Washington Post in Florida and Ohio showed Obama leading by eight and four points respectively in two virtual must-win states for Romney….

While the polls in Florida aren’t yet as disheartening to Boston as Ohio, Team Romney should be extremely troubled by Ohio, as well as Virginia and Wisconsin. Obama has led in every poll in all three states, with an average lead of more than 4.5 points, and even more in Wisconsin. Obama victories in all three states would give him 278 electoral votes, more than enough for victory. And although Nevada has never figured prominently into Romney’s electoral calculus, he also trails in every poll conducted in the Silver State….

In short, Romney is endanger of getting overwhelmed. Obama has established a clear lead in Virginia, Ohio, and Wisconsin, and there are signs that Obama might hold a similar lead in Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, or Colorado. The breadth of Obama’s lead and Romney’s deficit in North Carolina and Florida will make it difficult for Romney to concentrate the resources necessary to fight back state-by-state. Instead, Romney will need a large national swing to move the battleground states in his direction, but decisive swings have been very rare in the 2012 election.

And that’s even before this morning’s release of new Ohio and Florida polls by the New York Times/CBS/Quinnipiac combine that show Obama widening his lead in both states to the high single digits.

Yes, yes, of course, I know, nearly six weeks to go, debates, debates, jobs reports, jobs reports, gaffes, buyer’s remorse, Rove, Rove, money, money, money, money bark bark woof woof. I am not predicting an Obama win, but am just ever-increasingly fascinated by the refusal of the Right to accept it not simply as a “It Can Happen Here” possibility with which they frighten their children when they are bad, but a solid betting probability barring some reasonably significant change in the course of events.

Far beyond politics, of course, people facing what they consider to be catastrophic (and unearned!) misfortune often shake their fists at the sky and shout defiance at the gods. In psychoanalyzing unhappy conservatives, it is helpful to remember that they have a tendency to consider themselves not only wiser than other people, but more virtuous, and infinitely more deserving of divine favor (and it helps that many seem to worship a God who is, in their own image, something of an Angry White Man). So instead of calmly plotting a strategy that could help Mitt Romney make up the relatively small if increasingly steady margin by which he is trailing Barack Obama nationally and in the battleground states, we are seeing a wholesale attack on the accuracy of polls. Again, here’s Nate Cohn with a calm response:

Despite recent accusations, there isn’t much evidence suggesting that the polls are systemically biased toward Democrats. In fact, the clearest instance of bias in any direction came in 2010, when the polls systemically underestimated the strength of Democratic senatorial and gubernatorial candidates. …

If you need an example from 2012, recall that it was just a few months ago that the public polls nailed the results of the Wisconsin recall. The RCP average found Walker leading by 6.7 points and he ultimately won by 6.8 points.

Poll-doubters would do well to remember the reaction of Democratic pundits to Walker’s growing lead in Wisconsin. Democrats railed against the likely voter screen—it was said to be too tight in a Democratic-leaning state where voters had supposedly been outraged by Walker’s policies. A wave of internal Democratic polls were leaked and they showed a closer race. Yet on Election Day, the average of public polls was right. Something similar happened in 2004, when Democrats complained that the polls didn’t show a Democratic partisan-advantage, even though they held one 2000 and just about every previous election. On Election Day, the polls were right, Kerry lost, and there were an equal number of Democrats and Republicans in the final exit poll.

But the fury at the messenger may be reaching the point where a Romney defeat would be widely interpreted by Republicans as being actually caused by the polls, presumably on the grounds that millions of good conservative citizens will spend election day examining their gold coin collections and Mapquesting routes to Galt’s Gulch because they unaccountably slipped up and looked at a non-Rasmussen poll. It would be funny if it weren’t so pathological.

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.