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Beware Murphy, Rasmussen and Other B.S. Artists

Nov10

In the days following the elections in California and across the country, so many commentators, “political experts” and partisans have engaged in so much overstated, hyperventilated and tortured analysis, we at Calbuzz have hardly known what to say.

But when we saw meathead David Gregory interviewing our friend Mike Murphy, the $90,000-a-month campaign guru for Meg “Biggest Loser” Whitman, on “Press the Meat” the other day, we felt compelled to get up off the floor and say something.

“We got beat and, you know, I ran the campaign, and I take responsibility for it,” Murphy said, at least acknowledging that he had been in the neighborhood.  But then came excuse, No. 1: “It’s a very blue state and it’s getting bluer. As the red, you know, wave kind of went one way, there was a bit of a blue riptide coming the other way.”

And then, excuse No. 2: “CEO candidates who are doing kind of a tough medicine message . . . Meg and Carly Fiorina in California, they weren’t buying it. So we just couldn’t get there. We could win the Republicans, win the independents, but in California if you don’t win a lot of Democrats… you don’t win and we did not.”

Whoa there, big fella. “Win the independents?” If Meg and Carly had actually won the actual independents, they would be governor- and senator-elect.

Now it’s Murph’s job to spin. And when you make $2 million off a political client (if you just count Whitman’s initial investment in Murphy’s film company and his salary) you have good reason to try to convince the world that it was an impossible task. But it’s Gregory’s job – and since he didn’t do it, ours – to question his spin.

What you have to ask, though, is what was Murphy doing telling the California and national media – the day before the election – that his polling showed the race to be essentially tied and that Meg’s GOTV program was going to put her over the top?

Consultants have an obligation to work as hard as they can for their clients, but they also ought to consider their credibility with the reporters who will be covering them in the future. There are a lot of ways of doing both: “Look, it’s going to be close. This is a heavily Democratic state. But we think we’re going to do well.” Whatever.

Which brings us to Harry G. Frankurt, professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University, who wrote in 2005: “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.” Unlike liars, bullshitters are unconcerned about whether what they are saying is true, Frankfurt argued in “On Bullshit.” They simply alter the rules of the discussion so that truth and falsity become irrelevant.

In this way, Frankfurt contends, bullshit is an even greater enemy of truth than lies. This may be an even more important argument than Calbuzz made in our essay “The Death of Truth: eMeg and the Politics of Lying” back in July.

As we explained yesterday, Jerry Brown carried the independents in California even though the National Election Pool exit poll by Edison Research showed Whitman winning them 47-43%. That’s only because the NEP exit poll didn’t actually survey actual independents – or “Decline to State” voters as they’re known in California. They called “independent” anyone who didn’t think of him- or herself as a Democrat or a Republican.

We harp on this because we want to bust the myth that Whitman carried the independents in California BEFORE it becomes part of the historical narrative about the 2010 election. (Like the so-called “Bradley Effect” has become part of mythology. This is the false belief that voters lied to pollsters before the 1982 governor’s election because they didn’t want to appear racist when being surveyed. Long story short: the polls were right among precinct voters but they didn’t count absentee voters and George Deukmejian beat Tom Bradley among absentees who had already voted.)

Here’s the point: Brown won the moderates 60-35% and he beat Whitman in the polls that surveyed actual DTS – independent — voters. To win statewide in California you have to carry your party, win the independents and make some inroads into the other party. That’s what Brown did.

But Whitman’s standing with independent voters is just one of the myths being perpetuated about the 2010 election. And though it’s of immediate concern in California, it’s likely not the most important fiction at large in the journosphere.

Let’s take the “historic repudiation of Barack Obama and the Democrats,” the “powerful ideological shift” or whatever formulation is most current.

Didn’t happen.

As the notoriously neutral Cliff Young and Julia Clark, pollsters at Ipsos Public Affairs, argue in a lucid piece published by Reuters:

Pundits and politicos alike would have us believe that the Obama era is over, with the general elections in 2012 being a mere formality to an imminent Republican resurgence. Obama went too far left, or so the argument goes, and the Republican gains this year are a leading indicator of a re-adjustment.

In our view, this perspective is fundamentally wrong: the results of the present mid-term elections have little to do with the probable outcome of the general election in 2012 . . .

The 2010 electoral cycle, with the poorest performing economy in a generation, was a change election which favored the party out of power – the Republicans. This means that there was no fundamental shift in American values, or a “new Republican mandate,” but instead that the election was the result of the natural ebbs and flows of voter sentiment, driven by larger economic forces.

Then there’s the “rejection of Obamacare” – an odious label the Republicans use to describe the health care reforms passed by Congress and which some numbskull journalists insist on mimicking.

As CNN reported Wednesday, according to the Kaiser Health Tracking Poll (a very professional and reliable outfit and wholly transparent): Americans are split and conflicted about their opinion of the new health care reform law. . . 42 percent have a favorable opinion of the law, compared with four in 10 who have an unfavorable view of the new measure. The survey indicates that roughly one-third of Americans are enthusiastic about the law, almost one-third are angry about it, but more than half are confused when it comes to health care reform.

According to CNN’s digest of the survey, about half of adults say they’d like Congress to repeal all or parts of the health care reform law. But when asked about specifics, most want to keep key provisions. More than 70% would keep the tax credits to small businesses and financial help to Americans who don’t get insurance through their jobs. And a majority wants to keep provisions that close the Medicare doughnut hole and prohibit denying coverage due to pre-existing conditions.

As Kaiser reported: It is unclear how much public support House Republicans will find should they attempt to repeal or dismantle the law. Overall, about a quarter think the law should be entirely repealed and another quarter think only parts should be repealed, while about two in ten think the law should be left as is and another two in ten want to see it expanded. Still, even among those who voted for Republican candidates and those who say they want to repeal parts or all of the law, majorities still want to keep some of its most popular provisions.

So much for the “mandate” to undo health care reform. If Obama and the Democrats have any spine, they won’t be stampeded by those who would do the bidding of the medicopharma lobby.

Besides, as our old friend E.J. Dionne at the Washington Post, digesting Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin of the Center for American Progress, and the very smart Hendrick Hertzberg of the New Yorker argue, the electorate that turned out in November 2010 was not the same electorate that showed up at the polls in November 2008: it was older and whiter. So talking about what “the people” are demanding – as so many Washington pols are wont to do – is just so much (there’s no nice way to put this) bullshit.

And while we’re on the subject of bullshit: Let’s not forget all those Rasmussen polls that predicted elections everywhere wrong, wrong, wrong and which appear also to have had an outsized influence early in election cycles of creating narratives that showed Republican candidates doing far better than public polls were showing.

For further detail, read Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog at the New York Times where he explained that “polls conducted by the firm Rasmussen Reports — which released more than 100 surveys in the final three weeks of the campaign, including some commissioned under a subsidiary on behalf of Fox News — badly missed the margin in many states, and also exhibited a considerable bias toward Republican candidates.”

And don’t miss poll wizard Mark Blumenthal, now ensconced over at Huffington Post, who reported:

A remarkable bi-partisan group of campaign pollsters released an open letter this afternoon that assailed the “sometimes uncritical media coverage” of the “proliferation” of public pre-election polls that fail to disclose basic information about how they are conducted and that “have the capacity to shape media and donor reactions to election contests.”

The authors of the letter — 9 Democrats and 10 Republicans — amount to a virtual “who’s who” of campaign pollsters, the political consultants that conduct the opinion surveys sponsored by political campaigns for their internal use.

Their message is a bit unusual: At a time when political journalists and bloggers are busily scoring the accuracy of the final public election surveys, these pollsters called on the news media to judge the quality of polls based on “the professionalism with which they are conducted” rather than “their accuracy in the closing weeks of the election.”

More specifically, the campaign pollsters urged journalists to hold public polls to disclosure standards of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) that call on pollsters to release details such as the exact wording of questions, the demographics of their samples, the methods used to draw their samples and interview voters and the response rates they obtain.

Loyal readers of Calbuzz will note that back in October 2009, we laid out the kinds of standards we’d apply in taking polls seriously and while we have, from time to time, made mention of private polls and those that don’t adhere to AAPOR standards, we’d consistently used them only as referential data – not as principal measures of any horse race.

Our point, dear Calbuzzers, is this: Don’t buy a bag of bullshit just because it’s in a pretty package. The best spin is true.


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There are 3 comments for this post

  1. avatar tegrat says:

    These days “too far to the left” means anything that isn’t to the right. I would like someone to show me a list of anything of significance, including the PPACA, that the Obama admin has done that is anywhere near the left. Even the financial reform bill is weak sauce at best, and don’t get me started on a bill that was, by Obama’s own admission, for God’s sake, written by and for the right wing of congress. That argument simply carries no weight. What demonstrably happened is some Obama voters stayed home, for whatever reason, and I’m guessing it has more to do with disenchantment rather than “too far to the left”.

  2. avatar Andy says:

    I’m proud to own a first edition of “On Bullshit” – required reading in my opinion.

  3. avatar chrisfinnie says:

    Thank you for introducing me to professor Frankfurt, clearly a brilliant observer of American culture. I would love to see Jon Stewart interview him about this.

    Thanks to Calbuzz for debunking the conventional “wisdom” of the chattering classes. Nobody I know agrees with what they’re saying. And I’m glad to know polls indicate the same. However, as you point out, I doubt a dose of truth will make one iota of difference to these clowns.

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