Presidential Polls 2012: Obama Advantage in Polls Gives Birth to New Conservative Conspiracy Theory


The conservative movement continues to look for silver bullets to use against President Barack Obama. The most extreme are the "birthers" who concluded, on the basis of nothing, that Obama was not a natural-born USA citizen (listening to the infuriated demand for a closer look at his birth certificate, they seem as worried that he as an extra-terrestrial as a mere mortal alien. The Republican candidate in that clip was defeated in his primary by his extremist opponent, and she in turn lost to the Democrat).

Republican real estate mogul Donald Trump and Sheriff Joe Arpaio, of Maricopa County, Arizona, remain convinced that Obama's birth certificate is a fraud. In fairness, the former has a need for publicity and the latter may just be suckering small contributors.

The birther movement has offshoots that are worth separate examination. One holds that since Obama was (allegedly) a dual citizen at birth, he is ineligible (the author of that link was instrumental in destroying John Kerry's campaign with the "Swift Boat" stories). Even if the premise were true, the conclusion is bizarre, because it means that we are outsourcing our presidential eligibility to other countries. Suppose Mexico decided that Mitt Romney was born a Mexican citizen on the basis of his father's birth in Mexico. Do we really want to declare Mitt ineligible on this basis?

A second variation on dual citizenship is the claim that Obama gave up his American citizenship by traveling to Pakistan on his Indonesian documents by necessity, since American citizens were not allowed to go there. This version, which never got far past the internet chain letter stage, has a double helping of folly: first, it's unlikely that using another country's passport entails renunciation of American citizenship (for example, the children of Israeli emigrants living in America are considered, by Israel, as Israeli citizens and are supposed to visit Israel on an Israeli passport) and, even worse, there was no travel ban for American passports involving Pakistan, then or now.

All these follies share a common pattern: rejecting the "impossible", i.e., the eligibility and election of Barack Obama, enables fanatics to believe the implausible and the ridiculous. Why would the Republican governor of Hawai‘i participate in a conspiracy hatched, for some strange reason, by some ob-gyns fifty years ago?

The birthers are quiet this year, but in their place we have the pollers. The "impossible" is that Obama is leading by more-or-less the same margin he won by in 2008, against an opponent who has no particular political base and ambivalent relationship to his own accomplishments in health care. Enter a conspiracy theory: the polls, even from Fox News, are "skewing" the results, and we can tell because they report too large (in some sense) a number of Democrats.

The unskewers' explanation for this behavior is that, rather than suffer professional disaster after Romney wins the poll that really counts, they are demoralizing Republican voters in an attempt to turn the skewed numbers into a self-fulfilled prophecy (Literary Digest magazine never recovered from its badly mistaken poll that FDR would lose his 1936 re-election).

This, like birther conspiracy theories, is implausible, in no small part because malevolent pollsters with this plan could demoralize Republicans even more simply by lying, reporting a large number of (apostate) Republicans. Indeed, evidence suggests that to maintain interest in a "horse race", the media are, if anything, understating how good Obama's polling looks. Even Scott Rasmussen, whose firm is by far the friendliest to Republicans, dismisses the unskewers' technique of applying Rasmussen's estimate of party breakdown to other companies' polls. For one thing, not every pollster uses the same way of identifying party preference.

There is a much simpler explanation for the phenomenon the unskewers are complaining about: fewer people are identifying as Republicans. By Romney's own candid admission, his party is playing for only 53% (100-47) of the electorate, and they won't pull in all of that.

Watching the Republicans in the denial stage of the Romney campaign's death spiral would be a secretly pleasant exercise in Schadenfreude, except for the fear that if the election comes out as the mainstream polls predict—indeed, Obama has several states to spare—the blame will go not to the Republican candidate and platform, but to some new conspiracy theory about ACORN, George Soros, voter fraud by the millions, and a culture of dependent moochers (who are somehow disproportionately located in conservative states). A stab-in-the-back story will substitute for the re-boot the conservative movement needs to re-ground itself in the real world.