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The Optimism of a Pessimist

by James Bowman

Posted: Nov 05, 2012 08:32 PM

Jim Geraghty at NRO today makes my point of a month ago in this space about the effect of extremely low response rates on opinion poll results, and he cites the "Shy Tory Factor" in Britain as a comparison. If British Tories are shy about stating their voting intentions to pollsters, I don’t know that it necessarily follows that American conservatives should be too. It may be, however, that those on the right in both countries are more likely than those on the left to be jealous of their privacy. Also, of course, depending on where you are, a left-wing preference is more socially acceptable than a right-wing one. People who are made by their friends and neighbors to feel guilty for voting for a Conservative or a Republican, as many in New York were for voting for Rudy Giuliani, are also more likely to keep it quiet, as are those who feel guilty for voting against a black man. This could produce the modified "Bradley effect" that I also wrote of some months ago — that is a reticence with pollsters born not of racism but fear of being thought racist.

Mr Geraghty also notes this corroborating report about exit polling from 2004:

Interviewing for the 2004 exit polls was the most inaccurate of any in the past five presidential elections as procedural problems compounded by the refusal of large numbers of Republican voters to be surveyed led to inflated estimates of support for John F. Kerry, according to a report released yesterday by the research firms responsible for the flawed surveys.

The important point there is that the exit pollsters were seen by Republicans as agents of the media — as, indeed, they were, since the exit polling consortium consists of the major television news networks and the Associated Press — which must have had something to do with their shunning them. I remember the bumper-sticker from 1992 that read: "Annoy the Media: Re-elect Bush." Alas, there were not enough people twenty years ago for whom annoying the media proved a strong enough reason to vote for George H.W. Bush, though it wouldn’t surprise me if there were enough twelve years later to put his son over the top. If I were the Democratic incumbent tomorrow, I would be mindful of the fact that their numbers can only have swelled since then.

Perhaps related to this hypothetical anti-media sentiment is the reflection of Charles Moore in the London Daily Telegraph that, if Mr Romney is elected, it will be because of rather than in spite of the "gaffes" which the media have tried to make so much of. How I would like to believe that! Almost as much as I would like to think that the pollsters will all be confounded by a completely unforeseen tidal wave of support for Mitt. But of course it is for that very reason that I should not allow myself to expect any such thing. Wishful thinking can only be a hindrance to clear thinking. Still, if the media and the pollsters are hand in glove and if, as I believe, the media are ever more shameless in abandoning reporting for the sake of promoting Democratic candidates, especially the President, it may turn out that there has been enough wishful thinking on the other side to make my own wishful thinking correspond to reality more closely than I have any other reason to expect it will. I do hope so.

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