Occam's Razor is having a rough go of it these days.
We're now a few weeks out from the nomination conventions and the trend in the polls has been steady and unmistakable: President Obama rising, Mitt Romney declining. This is particularly true of the battleground states -- Ohio, Florida, Virginia, etc. -- where the president has maintained leads over his challenger, some within the margin of error, some very much outside of it. Faced with this phenomenon, which is reflected across nearly every reputable polling outfit, conservatives in the media have arrived at a sadly commonplace explanation: conspiracy.
Specifically, a conspiracy in which pollsters and the media are purposefully oversampling Democrats to create artificially high numbers for Obama in the hopes that they will discourage Republican voters from showing up at the polls on Election Day. It's wildly, objectively implausible stuff, but the idea of electoral collusion between Democrats and the media has become an article of faith in the modern conservative movement. It's a belief that's so strongly held that it has supplanted logical explanations for Romney's decline among the conservative media's most prominent voices.
The much-mocked avatar of the poll truther movement is UnskewedPolls.com, which takes the results from various and sundry national pollsters and reweighs them according to the GOP-friendly partisan breakdown used by Rasmussen (a methodology skewered by Scott Rasmussen himself, among others). This statistical alchemy produces Romney leads ranging from a modest 3 points to an amusing 11 points. (Save for Rasmussen tracking results, Romney has not led a national poll since early September, according to Talking Points Memo's poll tracker.)
Already Unskewed Polls has found its adherents in the conservative press. The Washington Times features not one, but two opinion pieces this morning that cite Unskewed Polls to fight back against the polling conspiracy. Wes Pruden, in a bit of unintentional comedy, writes that Unskewed Polls' “numbers might not be 'unskewed' so much as 'differently skewed.' But they might be more accurate.” Meanwhile, the Washington Times editorial board observes that “polls are used to drive the political debate and affect morale in both camps,” and gives Unskewed Polls a nod for “recalculat[ing] major poll results based on numbers reflecting the current, more balanced partisan breakdown.”
But it's not enough simply to say that the polls are being “skewed.” They have to be skewed for a reason. And what might that reason be? Enter Rush Limbaugh:
LIMBAUGH: The purpose of the people right now, most of them doing these polls, they're trying to make news, not reflect it, they're advancing an agenda. They're all Democrats. They're all liberals. They just have different jobs. The polls are the replacement refs. They see certain things. They don't see other things. They don't call certain things, and other things go by. In this case, what they're trying to do is exactly what they've done in your case: frustrate you, make you pull your hair out, say, what the hell's happening to the country? They want you thinking the country's lost. They want you thinking your side's lost. They want you thinking it's over for what you believe. And that makes you stay home and not vote. That's what they're hoping.
This idea that polls are actually a sophisticated and subtle means of Republican voter suppression is, despite its manifest insanity, a popular one. Here's Fox News' Steve Doocy asking Romney campaign adviser Ed Gillespie this morning if he believes the “theory” that the “mainstream media's going to talk down Romney's chances of winning, they're going to show Mr. Obama way up in the polls just to tamp down enthusiasm so Republicans go 'you know, why even bother voting?'”
Hearing it actually spelled out on the most-watched cable news network sure helps to drive home how nuts poll trutherism is, but another way to illustrate the illogic of it is to look at the explanations for Romney's downturn in Ohio, Florida, and beyond that conservatives are eschewing in favor of the great poll conspiracy.
Improving Economies: The national economic picture is not reflected in several key swing states, which are showing real signs of growth. The New York Times Magazine reported earlier this month:
While most of the debate nationally still revolves around why the economy remains so pathetic, there are several pivotal states -- Ohio, Florida, Nevada, Virginia -- where things are slowly turning around. In these states, the real issue may not be who deserves blame for economic ruin but rather who deserves credit for a rebound, and what really causes jobs to come back after they've been lost. Republican governors are saying that unemployment rates have plummeted because of their pro-business policies. The president is saying that the hard decisions he made earlier in his term are finally starting to pay off. And then there's Mitt Romney, a congenital optimist who finds himself in the uncomfortable position of having to be a total downer, arguing that there really isn't a recovery at all. “Trust Me: You're Still Miserable”could be Romney's bumper sticker in Ohio.
Romney Is Being Outspent: According to Paul Blumenthal of the Huffington Post, President Obama is spending much, much more on advertisements in Florida and Ohio than Romney, and is dominating the airwaves in those two battleground states. “A review of political ad contracts with broadcast television stations in the top five media markets in Florida -- Jacksonville, Miami, Orlando, Tampa and West Palm Beach -- and the top three markets in Ohio -- Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus -- show Obama's campaign running 10,000 more ads than Romney's campaign from the beginning of August through the middle of September.”
Message Muddle: CNN reports that Ohio Republicans acknowledge the many factors working against Romney in the state, like the popularity of the auto bailout. Others are privately griping that “Romney is [a] man without a message,” faulting his “lackluster political skills” and “stiff CEO demeanor.” According to CNN:
Another statewide Republican officeholder who -- like others interviewed for this article -- did not want to be identified criticizing the Republican ticket, offered a blunter assessment.
Both Romney and Obama, this official argued, have provided nothing but “narrow arguments” and “fantasy land” policy prescriptions for the country.
“Why is Mitt Romney running for president and what will his presidency be about?” the official asked. “I don't think most Republicans in Ohio can answer that question. He has not made a compelling case for his candidacy. Don't make your campaign about marginal tax rates. Make it about your children and your grandchildren and the future of this country.”
47 Percent: Romney's poll slide has coincided with Mother Jones' reporting on a surreptitiously shot video of Romney at a fundraiser in Florida disparaging 47 percent of Americans as government dependents who pay no income taxes and see themselves as “victims.” As Suzanne Mettler and John Sides noted on the New York Times' Campaign Stops blog, the “reality he glossed over is that nearly all Americans have used government social policies at some point in their lives.” The same conservatives propagating poll trutherism have also defended Romney's attack on the 47 percent, which explains why they don't view it as a reason for his sliding numbers, but Mettler and Sides point out, it's not a view of government that's broadly shared:
Because ideology influences how we view our own and others' use of government, Mr. Romney's remarks may resonate with those who think of themselves as “producers” rather than “moochers” -- to use Ayn Rand's distinction. But this distinction fails to capture the way Americans really experience government. Instead of dividing us, our experiences as both makers and takers ought to bind us in a community of shared sacrifice and mutual support.
Alec MacGillis of The New Republic has his own list of reasons why Obama is pulling away in Ohio, and the National Journal offers some hypotheses for Romney's decline generally. None of this is to say that any one of these reasons alone or in tandem sufficiently explains the current political landscape. But they do make a hell of a lot more sense than poll trutherism.