The Separate Realities of a '50-50 Race'

By James Fallows

As a reminder of the state of play four days before the election, boiling down two previous long posts (first and second):

  • All publicly available polling information, especially swing-state polls, suggests now as it has through this entire year that President Obama has an edge for re-election.
  • Nonetheless many Republicans seem sure that victory -- and a big one -- is just in sight.
  • Some are obviously saying this for tactical effect, no matter what they actually "believe." Karl Rove is predicting a Republican victory, but that is what he predicts before every race, win or lose. Dick Morris -- who knows?
  • But a significant number seem genuinely convinced that their own "worst president in history" opinion of Obama is so widely shared than an anti-incumbent landslide is imminent.
  • Thus we have what is unjustly known as the "Pauline Kael problem." If Mitt Romney wins, especially given his electoral-college handicap, many Democrats will wonder about voter suppression, given everything they've heard about the problem. If Barack Obama wins, many Republicans will be sure that something fraudulent has gone on. How could it be otherwise, given that, like the apocryphal Kael in 1972, they didn't know anyone who could have voted to keep the horrible incumbent in office?

What happens then? Readers weigh in. First, from a reader in Kentucky, about the familiar but important echo-chamber phenomenon:

Your recent posts have again put me in mind of a fact I find myself coming face to face with on a regular basis in my very red state, but which seems to often be overlooked in political discussions: to wit, that is is now possible for a person to never hear an opposing point of view.  A person can go from watching Fox News, to listening to talk radio, to reading conservative blogs, and get the same message every time.  The left is gradually building its own structure (CurrentTV, MSNBC, etc) but thankfully lacks the right's incredible gift for message clarity.  The effect of this is that at least on the right the tail now wags the dog of the Republican party.  Growing Republican extremism is probably not the Fox News business plan, but it is the inevitable effect of having parts of the country where 60 and 70 percent of households use a single, politically biased news source as their only source for outside information.
 
The result is pretty unpleasant to witness.  I love my adopted Commonwealth of Kentucky, but it is impossible to have a political conversation here.  Every conversation I have risks a descent into Republican talking point hell.   When I try to refute those points with facts, it falls on deaf ears.
 
So, when you are discussing, for example, Republican's attempting to delegitimize an Obama presidency by making an argument which implies that Obama could only win by fraud, I have no doubt it is true -- many of the people I talk with already have gone there.  It is the certitude that comes from never having your assumptions and data challenged.  Its as if a third of the country joined one of those hippie soccer leagues where they play every week and nobody keeps score.  Of course they don't know how to accept adverse information -- they've never had to. 
 
The same can be said about climate change.  Once all but the wingnuts believed that we needed to do something -- the question was what (cap and trade, tax carbon directly, etc).  Now, we can't even agree that there is a problem.    Obama proposed what was essentially John McCain's climate plan, and was widely denounced as a 'socialist."
 
I don't know what the solution is, but the phenomenon is one which shakes my faith in the First Amendment.  It's something we need to talk about more, especially after we have the data from this election to look at.

From another reader, whose experience is like my own with some of my childhood friends:

I have one "friend" on Facebook who was a high school classmate and is now an evangelical Christian, sure the end times are coming (and that Obama is a sure sign of that).  She has a series of news sources that I would never have heard of except for her, such as nowtheendbegins, pakalertpress, and so on.  She post things that are outrageous from these sites, and if I counter with anything factual, she is offended.  No evidence from outside can change her beliefs.  Now she has started to talk about how once Romney wins, they will have to hold his feet to the fire too.  These posts alternate with posts about how Democrats will try to steal the election.

My hypothesis is that her belief in the inerrancy of the Bible has primed her for these other beliefs.  Evolution is a lie to her, the age of the universe is a lie, and even the founding fathers to her are all Christians and the US is intended by the founders to be a Christian nation, explicitly blessed by God.  Nothing that comes from outside of the Bible, or websites/news sources that to her tie in with that viewpoint, is trustworthy.

Her belief about the nature of God's relationship with the United States also helps explain why it is so important to her that we not have gay marriage and abortion.  God will withdraw his blessing from us, or will punish us for deviating from following his law, and this judgment falls on the whole country, not on the individuals who are failing to follow God's teachings.  This is why appeals to follow her own religion and let others follow their own beliefs fall on deaf ears.  We ALL have to follow her beliefs in order for God to bless this country.  Do you think it's a coincidence that Sandy hit a sinful area (New York City)?  I think my classmate is probably disappointed that Washington didn't get hit harder, because she predicted that it would.

It's very sad to read this, and yet it gives me an insight that Pauline Kael never had access to.  Unfortunately, I wish that access to my views would have some influence on my classmate, but that is not the case.  She just keeps telling me how my views prove that I don't understand God, and I'll suffer for it in the afterlife.  There's no good answer to that!

On the other hand, from a reader in the Midwest:

I sent a quick 'political science' question to 6 relatives who are voting for Romney, "Who do you think will win next week's election?"  Two are former liberals, now neocons in early '90s, and four are younger voters who came of age in late 90s and adopted conservative/ neocon positions, especially on Iraq and government spending.  So far, two said the election was too close to call.  One said Obama will win.

These people do not work for or donate to campaigns, although they support Romney.  But if engaged in a discussion of budget deficits, Iraq, 'apology tour', taxes, etc., they will fiercely defend the neocon/House Republican views.

While first surprised at the results of my personal survey, I now have an unscientific idea of what may be going on .You quoted mostly commentators whose intent is to portray Romney as a 'winning' candidate or are 'true believers' who ignore reality.  True, but I think all this hype is more directed at keeping the field organizers and 'faithful' excited and hopeful through the rest of the campaign, as turn-out will be a major factor this year.  The campaign may pick up a few 'independents' or 'undecideds' by pushing a momentum message.

But if three out of six ideologically committed conservative/neocons, all of whom are more informed than the average voter and certainly read polls, including conservative ones, aren't fooled, the Romney momentum drive is too late to draw uncommitted voters to its side.  They need to further consolidate their base or election day.

In regards to this message, it is worth remembering that through the primary season it was the likes of Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, and even Ron Paul who emphasized that Mitt Romney would be the weakest possible candidate the party could field against Barack Obama. They were the ones who spent time and money on the "vulture capitalist" ads, the flip-flopper and "out of touch" themes, and "ObamneyCare."

From another reader, on the possible motives of strategists like Rove:

I, personally, absolutely believe [that the "Romney will win!" theme] is a de-legitimizing strategy for one simple reason: this is so strangely out of touch (more so than usual) and the people leading it are not the base conservative voter.  Rove knows exactly how likely Romney is to lose.  And yet the gonzo 'up is down' talk is only growing.

Another aspect of the deligitimation depends on how close the states are.  One can expect legal challenges if the vote is close.  I think this push to portray Obama as having zero chance is laying the groundwork.  At minimum it works to keep constituents of Republicans in Congress from tolerating any compromises in the event of an Obama re-election because they will have a reinforced sense of being robbed (which they have had about Mr. Kenya his whole presidency)....

You might think, what is the point of a challenge that is almost certain to lose if the probabilities hold?  Not because Rove and his ilk could sue for the Presidency.  It is that a prolonged legal post-election fight would firmly cement the illegitimacy of Obama.... If it is truly close in the right states, I would not be the least bit surprised in a loud, obnoxious, quixotic legal fight to put an exclamation point on the Right's refusal to accept Obama as the real president.

The only upside to that might be that Obama finally learns he cannot work with these people.   He can only outmaneuver them. 

Similarly:

As for your reader who sees this as an attempt to "de-legitimize an Obama win," I think that is dead-on, and it concerns me greatly. The GOP has lost wedge issues, so now they must create wedge identities.

To end on a cheerier note, Jason Paur of Wired has reminded me that it's not really right to say that a tossed coin has a 50 percent probability of coming up heads. If you'd like to know why, check it out a scientific paper here. (Short version: for mechanical reasons, a coin that starts out heads when you flip it has a slightly >50 percent chance of coming up heads when it lands.)

And a Canadian reader has north-of-the-border wisdom on the whole concept of 50-50 probabilities. It's from a beloved Canadian sitcom Corner Gas, set in the imagined Saskatchewan village of Dog River. The relevant part starts around time 4:20, which you can see below or go to directly with this link:

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/11/the-separate-realities-of-a-50-50-race/264427/