Barack Obama may win in November, or Mitt Romney may win, but the 2012 election already has given us its most important new word and iconic idea: Unskewing.
The proprietor of UnskewedPolls.com, a previously obscure Virginia blogger named Dean Chambers, didn’t like the results of a set of polls showing Mitt Romney losing. So he rearranged their samples, and announced that Romney was winning, a result greeted warmly by conservatives from Rick Perry to Matt Drudge.
Chambers’ instant popularity on the right marked a kind of death knell for the aphorism often attributed to the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” a claim that has faced an unusual assault this election year. The 2012 presidential cycle began on a stage set by utterly irrational demands for a president's birth certificate and wide and heated Republican rejection of a health care principle that, Democrats never tire of pointing out, was at one point a Republican idea. It rolled on this week to wide Republican doubt about the validity of the previously uncontroversial Bureau of Labor Statistics unemployment numbers. It has seen a hallucinatory gap in partisan perceptions of the economy, as Democrats suddenly began rating it “excellent” and “good” as the presidential campaign heated up.
There is a vast and longstanding political science literature devoted to explaining the human propensity to fit opinion and even fact to partisan convenience — support for a war, for instance, tends to flip when a new party takes the White House — but many of the political scientists who study just this say they’ve never seen it the gap this wide.
“It's different today than the Whigs and the Tories fighting it out a couple hundred years ago — and it's even different from the 50s or 60s — because today we have a hyper-partisan media,” said Paul Kellstedt, an associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University, who has argued that standard measures of economic confidence fail to take into account the partisan skew.
“When people watch only Fox News, or only MSNBC, their minds are thrown into this preferred-world state,” he said. “The accuracy motive fades a bit.”
“When we encounter information that is inconvenient or disagreeable, we find ways to explain it away. We can do that with statistics almost as well as we can with any other type of information,” said John Sides, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University and co-founder of the blog The Monkey Cage. “Now we have partisan news and partisan leaders to do that work for you. If you don't want to believe that Romney is losing, you go to UnskewedPolls.com, and it will tell you that he's not. “
More of the 2012 cycle’s descents into fantasyland — the unskewing of polls and BLS paranoia most obvious among them — have featured Republicans than Democrats, prompting some on the left to argue that American conservatives have a particular hostility to reality. And certainly, the conservative movement has long nourished more skepticism of the mainstream media and of some forms of government authority than has the left.
But there’s probably a simpler explanation for at least some of this: Mitt Romney has spent most of the year losing, and so the Republicans are the ones feeling compelled to re-imagine the polls. That Democrats share, at least, the impulse became clear Wednesday night when a CNN snap poll showed Romney winning overwhelmingly. The liberal twittersphere erupted with skepticism over a sample that, an easy misread suggested, was tilted toward Southern Whites. The progressive news site TalkingPointsMemo shared, then retracted, those doubts; others, like the enduring liberal blog Hullaballoo, which declared the poll “malpractice,” didn’t correct, and the episode prompted a wave of glee among conservatives who had watched the previous round of unskewing with some embarrassment.
An array of authors have blamed the shifting media for this deepening divide. Slate’s Farhad Manjoo’s 2008 book on the subject presented itself as a cheeky manual on on the problem of “learning to live in a post-fact society.”
“Increasingly our arguments aren't over what we should be doing …but instead over what is happening,” he wrote. “We're now fighting over competing versions of reality.”
(2008 also featured a countervailing trend: The poll analyst Nate Silver came to prominence in part by arguing that polling, read accurately, could be trusted.)
Manjoo pointed to the rise of tailored online media as a key cause of the deepening divide, something echoed by academic researchers.
“We have more media choices, whether it's cable television or the internet, so it's easier to get information that's consistent with your predisposition,” Cornell’s Peter Enns told BuzzFeed.
And as online media shifts, new and ideological sources of information are shifting with it. MoveOn co-founder Eli Pariser published a book about how Google and other platforms are subtly tailoring users’ experience to tell them what they want to hear, creating a “filter bubble” — before creating Upworthy, a site that packages progressive content to make it spread on the social web, perhaps the most effective online tool for extending those bubbles into that booming online space. (Pariser argues that the content will persuade and mobilize people across partisan bubbles.)
One central consequence of the divided new political realities is that conversation has grown difficult, and politics harder to talk about.
“It's not that I disagree,” Andrew Sullivan wrote recently. “I cannot even begin to see how a conversation can begin. We have different experiences of reality. But that's why, I think, this election is so fascinating. It will, by default, offer us a direct take on the majority's perception of reality.”
This fall’s arguments over basic facts have been the strangest and most interesting features of a generally dull political cycle, and the main consolation may be that if a poor grasp on facts is a growing and disturbing feature of American politics it is not entirely new. Senator Moynihan’s famous quote itself, in fact, appears to have been misattributed to him.
But unskewing reality is now a booming industry. Chambers, the original unskewer, has since launched Unskewed Media and Unskewed Politcs sites. The former site trumpets skepticism on the jobs numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The latter site, meanwhile, links an article by Chambers that seeks to explain away the methodological complication that Romney is now gaining in the despised media polls.
“I blew the whistle the on the skewed pollsters, predicted they would clean up their act, and bingo, the pollsters are producing more accurate polls using less skewed samples,” Chambers writes. “It's not coincidence.”