Saturday, November 10, 2012

Revenge of the number

IN THE face of Tuesday’s one-sided victory by President Obama, it’s hard to resist the temptation to go into schadenfreude mode — “Serves you right to suffer,” John Lee Hooker once said — but the veritable landslide (Obama finally captured Florida, giving him 332 electoral voters to Mitt Romney’s 206) was a vindication of raw, cold, satisfying statistical science.

The outcome of the presidential election disproves the longstanding assumption that the mainstream media was the fount of rampant bias toward the president. Personal inclinations of the anchors and commentators notwithstanding, much of what the mainstream media reported on the Obama and Romney campaigns, their strengths and weaknesses, was based on facts — a long and deep parade of statistics, metrics and reliable polling from a variety of news and information sources, as well as granular information from studiously nonpartisan sources in the federal government.

Much of this information Republicans and conservatives communicated to the public as proof of liberal bias, even as the Romney campaign indulged in its own extravagant embroideries of the truth — or flat-out lies — and locking itself so completely in the echo chamber of a belief system that Neil Newhouse, a pollster working for the Romney campaign, said “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”

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The Republicans thought had an unbeatable hand. From before Mitt Romney’s campaign was launched, the stage was set for the Republican nominee to be the beneficiary of the conservative media ecosystem: the Fox News television wind machine; the Wall Street Journal editorial page; water carriers like Newsmax and The Daily Caller; popular outliers like the Drudge Report and; the Regnery book-publishing house; long-form news and analysis outlets like the Weekly Standard; and the ubiquity of a radio audience tuned to the perspectives of Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh, the talk-radio Doberman lately considered the voice of the Republican Party.

Later, once it was determined that Romney would be the nominee, that ecosystem got a big assist from SuperPACs, outside groups and contributors; their money for radio and TV ads was a force multiplier for expressing the Romney campaign message.

With every aspect of media so thoroughly covered, Team Romney and the Republican Party set out to do the impossible: to transform history, to impose on the electorate their own conservative view of the last four years by carefully constructing their own alternate historical narrative — by effectively making their own reality.

“Fact-checkers? We don’t need no stinkin’ fact-checkers.”

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THE MAINSTREAM media and Team Obama were allies in nothing more than pursuit of the available facts. The strength or weakness of each campaign was subject to the results of a wide range of polls, from the independent outfits like PPP, Marquette University Law School and Pew Research Center to polls with connections to mainstream media orgs (NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist, Quinnipiac/New York Times/CBS, Gallup/USA Today).

The torrent of data from those polls, and others, was combined with a wealth of information from nonpartisan independent groups like the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and info from government sources like the Congressional Budget Office, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, whose unemployment-rate figures in the final two months of the campaign were discredited by Team Romney as wildly inaccurate — or evidence of the liberal bias that his campaign and the party in general had long suspected.

And mainstream media had a force multiplier of its own: Nate Silver, the statistical guru whose FiveThirty Eight blog in The New York Times became daily reading for campaign insiders — and whose constantly updated, well-researched statistical conclusions of a Romney defeat (many weeks before it happened) were regularly dismissed by conservatives and Team Romney.

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Robert Reich, in the Christian Science Monitor, observed that what took place on the Republican side was “a parallel Republican universe of Orwellian dimension – where anything can be asserted, where pollsters and political advisers are free to create whatever concoction of lies will help elect their candidate, and where “fact-checkers” are as irrelevant and intrusive as is the truth.”

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It was a classic case of protracted denial on and off the campaign trail. By Election Day, Team Romney had the conservative media convinced that the governor would win the White House in a cakewalk. Glenn Beck predicted a Romney victory. Charles Krauthammer said Romney would win; Dick Morris, another of the resident seers on Fox News, predicted a Romney “landslide.”

George Will, who sure as hell oughta know better, predicted a Romney win by a lopsided margin, so did conservative blogger Hugh Hewitt, who based his prediction on Romney having won the debates. And Michael Barone, a longtime Fox News political analyst (and therefore a longtime drinker of the Kool-Aid in the Fox editorial cafeteria) went so far as to predict a Romney landslide of 315 electoral votes.

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FAST FORWARD to Tuesday night and the work of the conservative fabulists was distressingly complete: Team Romney and its supporters were blindsided by the election loss, which included a complete misreading of black voter turnout. On Wednesday, Politico reported: “In Virginia and Florida, exit polls showed the same share of African-Americans turned out as four years ago, something that GOP turnout models did not anticipate.

 “‘We didn’t think they’d turn out more of their base vote than they did in 2008, but they smoked us,’ said one Romney operative. ‘It’s unbelievable that they turned out more from the African-American community than in 2008.’”

It was just one facet of a stunning misread of reality — real reality, not the Team Romney version — that led to the scene at Romney headquarters in Boston on Election Night: in the faces of Romney supporters expressions of dejection and utter disbelief. They all drank the Kool-Aid, too.

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 CONOR FREIDERSDORF, writing in The Atlantic, explained why conservatives should be up in arms against their own media outlets for leading them down a garden path they were all too willing to walk down: the one that pointed to a Romney victory when a mountain range of empirical and unbiased data had said otherwise for weeks, if not months.

“Conservatives were at an information disadvantage because so many right-leaning outlets wasted time on stories the rest of America dismissed as nonsense. WorldNetDaily brought you birtherism. Forbes brought you Kenyan anti-colonialism. National Review obsessed about an imaginary rejection of American exceptionalism, misrepresenting an Obama quote in the process, and Andy McCarthy was interviewed widely about his theory that Obama, aka the Drone Warrior in Chief, allied himself with our Islamist enemies in a ‘Grand Jihad’ against America. Seriously?

“Conservatives were at a disadvantage because their information elites pandered in the most cynical, self-defeating ways, treating would-be candidates like Sarah Palin and Herman Cain as if they were plausible presidents rather than national jokes who'd lose worse than George McGovern.”

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Not that long ago, the Democrats were ritually accused of practicing politics in a “circular firing squad.” The big-time blame game underway within the Republican camp may well put that to shame.

The results of the election on Tuesday were a triumph of precision over partisanship; the number exacted its revenge on the talking point and the nonstop TV ad. The election’s results thoroughly corroborate the information that the conservative media by and large ignored. This wasn't a matter of a liberal self-fulfilling prophecy; this was the real-world culmination of data and polling trends that was all too obvious … if only the Republicans had bothered to pay attention.

Image credits: 2012 final election map: via Fox News logo: © 2012 Fox News Channel. CBPP logo: © 2012 CBPP. George Will: ABC News.

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