The Republican party is often accused of stoking anti-science sentiments in order to win over uneducated voters or to pursue policies that they otherwise favor. But the recent story of their polling strategy suggests that their stance on science may be more than just some manipulative ploy.
At its heart, science is the practice of setting aside prejudice and cognitive heuristics, impartially observing reality, and drawing rational inferences. Your conclusions are then proved against the conclusions of an open, discursive, reality-based community.
When it came to the statistical polling of this election, the Romney campaign was utterly unscientific. Consider this fascinating report on the disbelief at Romney headquarters when they lost the election, which described Romney himself as “shellshocked”:
After Ohio went for Mr. Obama, it was over, but senior advisers say no one could process it. “We went into the evening confident we had a good path to victory,” said one senior adviser. “I don’t think there was one person who saw this coming.” […] “There’s nothing worse than when you think you’re going to win, and you don’t,” said another adviser. “It was like a sucker punch.”
It seems strange that they were so mentally unprepared for defeat when all of the polling models were pointing in the same direction. Nate Silver, for example, calculated that Obama had a 90.9% chance of victory, based on an aggregation of all of the available polling. The conservative reaction was to accuse Silver of bias. How could the Republicans have been so convinced of their own chances?
[T]hey believed the public/media polls were skewed – they thought those polls oversampled Democrats and didn’t reflect Republican enthusiasm. They based their own internal polls on turnout levels more favorable to Romney. That was a grave miscalculation, as they would see on election night. Those assumptions drove their campaign strategy: their internal polling showed them leading in key states, so they decided to make a play for a broad victory: go to places like Pennsylvania while also playing it safe in the last two weeks.
In other words, when their observations did not confirm their preconceived notions, they filtered the observations. It fits the pattern of a party that prefers to spin a conspiracy theory when confronted with evidence of climate change, or that establishes its own media echo chamber when it doesn’t like the reporting of the mainstream media. This time, their anti-scientific mindset affected campaign decisions, and cost them dearly.
In constrast, consider this report on the obsessive data crunching of the Obama campaign:
[F]rom the beginning, campaign manager Jim Messina had promised a totally different, metric-driven kind of campaign in which politics was the goal but political instincts might not be the means. “We are going to measure every single thing in this campaign,” he said after taking the job. He hired an analytics department five times as large as that of the 2008 operation, with an official “chief scientist”[… This was] a massive data effort that helped Obama raise $1 billion, remade the process of targeting TV ads and created detailed models of swing-state voters that could be used to increase the effectiveness of everything from phone calls and door knocks to direct mailings and social media[…]
It was this database that helped steady campaign aides in October’s choppy waters, assuring them that most of the Ohioans in motion were not Obama backers but likely Romney supporters whom Romney had lost because of his September blunders. “We were much calmer than others,” said one of the officials. The polling and voter-contact data were processed and reprocessed nightly to account for every imaginable scenario. “We ran the election 66,000 times every night,” said a senior official, describing the computer simulations the campaign ran to figure out Obama’s odds of winning each swing state. “And every morning we got the spit-out — here are your chances of winning these states. And that is how we allocated resources.”
It paid off.
I suppose it’s fitting that the people who are disposed to trust climate scientists also trust statistics. Let’s hope that the Republicans take this not just as a lesson about how to campaign, but about how to scientifically assess reality.