The Pew Poll and Confirmation Bias

In the Daylight Video, I was reacting to the first look at the aggregators this morning, which showed plenty of gloating among conservatives about favorable poll numbers for Romney late yesterday, but just as much panic and even despair among Democrats. Might as well just quote Andrew Sullivan, who definitely set the pace with a post calmly entitled: “Did Obama Just Throw the Entire Election Away?”

The Pew poll is devastating, just devastating. Before the debate, Obama had a 51 – 43 lead; now, Romney has a 49 – 45 lead. That’s a simply unprecedented reversal for a candidate in October. Before Obama had leads on every policy issue and personal characteristic; now Romney leads in almost all of them. Obama’s performance gave Romney a 12 point swing! I repeat: a 12 point swing….

Seriously: has that kind of swing ever happened this late in a campaign? Has any candidate lost 18 points among women voters in one night ever? And we are told that when Obama left the stage that night, he was feeling good. That’s terrifying. On every single issue, Obama has instantly plummeted into near-oblivion….

I’m trying to see a silver lining. But when a president self-immolates on live TV, and his opponent shines with lies and smiles, and a record number of people watch, it’s hard to see how a president and his party recover.

Now Andrew’s reaction is an instructive example of confirmation bias in the assimilation of data. He is someone who clearly thought the first presidential debate was a disaster at the time, and is now freaking out because he’s seeing confirmation of his worst fears. So telling him that this is just one poll (or two polls counting PPP’s new survey showing Romney up by two points among LVs) won’t cut much ice, since he’s now expecting others to show the same confirmation of his own impressions of a catastrophic debate defeat for Obama. It’s also obvious he’s not someone who thinks “fundamentals” are more important than events in determining election outcomes.

In general, people tend to over-react to developments like a moment of adverse polling because they confirm hopes and fears. In some cases, like Sullivan’s, it may be because of the impact on one event. In others, it could be because that same event confirmed earlier, more basic hopes and fears: e.g., conservatives who think Obama’s too stupid to pull off a successful debate performance, or liberals who think he’s a mushy moderate wimp who deserves to lose because he keeps eschewing populism for the fool’s gold (or traitor’s silver) of deficit reduction talk.

Now to anyone without such a predisposition to expect big turning point data just over the next horizon, the Pew and PPP polls were surprising and curious, but hardly proof of anything. Both were almost entirely a snapshot of the most immediate reaction of Americans to the debate, and seemed to reflect a debate-driven partisan “enthusiasm gap” that may already be fading. We need to see some credible national polls with later surveys, and also credible new polling of states like Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Iowa before deciding that anything has really changed, much less than we might as well just tune out until after a pre-ordained election.

Until then, though, you can’t really ask people who think the end of the world is nigh to stop noticing what look like End-Time Signs right out of the Book of Revelation.

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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.