At a conservative conclave that I attended on Friday, a dozen or so attendees were asked to raise their hands if they believed Mitt Romney would win the election. Mine was the only hand to not go up. I imagine a similar gathering of liberals would have produced another nearly unanimous result in President Obama's favor.
We have arrived at an interesting, and dangerous, moment in history. Both sides are utterly convinced that their guy will win the presidency on Tuesday. I'm not talking about mere boosterism. I'm talking about a sincere belief that the numbers are on their sides.
It was bound to happen, eventually.
A few decades ago, Americans largely watched the same TV shows, read the same newspapers, and relied on a handful of respected polls to predict elections. To be sure, there were surprises (see Dewey beats Truman). Polls weren't as sophisticated back then. But Americans were generally consuming the same information, and thus, arriving at the same conclusions.
In some ways, of course, the good old days weren't all that good. The media could filter out information that didn't comport with their liberal worldview. But at least there was a general consensus about the big things.
Today, the potential for epistemic closure is unprecedented.
Today, the potential for epistemic closure is unprecedented. Conservatives who watch only Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh don't just believe Romney should win — they know he will win. Anecdotally, they have a hard time wrapping their heads around the notion that America could re-elect a president as bad as Obama.
Four men are dead in Benghazi, including an American ambassador. And the unemployment rate is actually higher than it was the day Obama took office. It seems inconceivable to many conservatives around the country that the nation could actually re-elect Obama, and the media they consume strengthens that conviction.
Conversely, liberals who watch only MSNBC and read The New York Times are convinced Obama will be re-elected on Tuesday. They believe that conservatives don't just have a war on science, but also a war on math — that they are deluded about the polls, and thus, reality.
But the war on math meme isn't so clear cut. Not only do both sides have their own media outlets to interpret and disseminate information, both sides now have respected polling professionals who can use actual numbers to rationalize their dramatically different conclusions.
In essence, conservatives and liberals are living in parallel universes.
The Miami Herald's Marc Caputo summed it up well:
You are not entitled to your own facts. But you are entitled to your own poll— Marc Caputo (@MarcACaputo) November 3, 2012
Democrats can point to countless polls showing Romney consistently trailing in key battleground states like Ohio. Since the Electoral College is what matters, Democrats are convinced Romney can't win.
Republicans argue this is largely irrelevant, since many of the polls predicting an Obama victory also rely on methodology that assumes this year's Democratic turnout will rival 2008. This seems absurd, Republicans argue. How is it possible, they ask, that President Obama could inspire the kind of excitement and turnout that he did when he was a messianic candidate talking "hope and change?"
At this point, you might be asking: "Why does any of this matter?" After all, the only poll that matters will be conducted on Tuesday.
Besides, couldn't there be some positive things to come from both sides believing they will win? If the "bandwagon effect" is a real phenomenon, both sides believing they will win could even increase voter participation.
If Election Day becomes a party, you can be sure the nation will wake with a hangover. The problem is that about half of us may very well be outraged and incredulous come Wednesday morning.
This could be disastrous. The losers may feel cheated or betrayed — like Germans astounded to learn they lost World War I. They may conclude the fix was in — that voter fraud must have been involved. (After all, what else would explain how election was so different from the polls?)
It could ultimately undermine voter efficacy, convincing the losing side that their vote doesn't matter.
Worse yet, in the short term: We might have to live through recounts, lawsuits, and recriminations.
But perhaps the worst likely outcome is that America will continue to be a nation where about half its citizens believe the president of the United States is illegitimate. And no matter what your politics are, that's just not good for our country.
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