Either the “Wait, What?” of the Week, or Proof That 1 in 6 Republicans are Absolutely Batshit Insane.

This is a great time of the year for political junkies.  Both conventions have passed, we know what type of bounce each candidate received, and the sprint to election day has begun.  And with the finish line in sight, polling data is going to be coming fast and furious, especially in battle ground states.

One such battle ground state this year is, of course, Ohio.  Public Policy Polling has a new poll of Ohio out showing Obama with a 5 point lead in the state, his largest of the cycle.  For people following this election, this is pretty bad news for Romney.  The path to 270 electoral votes for Mitt almost certainly has to include Ohio.  Without Ohio, a Romney win is still possible, but vanishingly so.

But I’m not the place you come to for analysis of the latest polling data.  I’m sure you go to fivethirtyeight for that.  No, I bring up this poll of Ohio not for the top line number, but for a question a bit farther down the list.

Q15 Who do you think deserves more credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden: Barack Obama or Mitt Romney?

Barack Obama………………………………………… 63%
Mitt Romney……………………………………………. 6%
Not sure …………………………………………………. 31%

Let’s break that down to only Republicans:

Barack Obama………………………………………..38%

Mitt Romney………………………………………….15%

Not Sure………………………………………………..47%

That is 62% of Ohio Republicans who are not sure who deserves more credit for killing bin Laden.  With 15 saying Romney should get the credit.

 

Wait, what?

 

I assume that this is just an artifact of polling.  Republicans taking the poll just instinctively saying “Romney” whenever given a choice between the two, or just refusing to give Obama credit.  Over at Erza Klien’s Wonkblog, Dylan Matthews talks about these results and what we know about polling:

The results for Republican voters were even more astonishing. 38 percent said Obama, 47 percent weren’t sure, and 15 percent said Romney. What the heck is going on?

My best guess is one dash psychological trickery, and a healthy portion of sampling error. There’s a huge literature in political science on the extent to which surveys like this capture true public opinion, and another literature on the extent to which peoples’ ideologies affect their interpretation of objective fact, and both do a lot to explain the Romney-killed-bin Laden finding.

……………….

In other words, voters have trouble crediting politicians they don’t like for policy outcomes they do like. And killing bin Laden is a policy outcome they do like. And so partisan effects have led some Republicans to argue that Obama was not primarily responsible for killing bin Laden or, even more absurdly, that Romney was responsible.

………………….

The most prominent model of public opinion, that of UCLA’s John Zaller, argues that people read news media and absorb the things they read that comport with their general worldview, and then, when polled, repeat back whatever information they encountered most recently. More aware voters are more partisan in what information they internalize, but they expose themselves to a lot more information, whereas less informed voters read less but absorb more of what they read, regardless of which party it supports. So informed voters hold consistent but extremely partisan views, and uniformed voters hold very inconsistent views with no clear partisan direction. What’s at the top of an uninformed voter’s head could be anyone’s guess.

The Zaller theory suggests that we should be extremely skeptical about public opinion polling, and particularly about its use outside well-trodden territory like election polls. To apply it to this case, suppose someone polled by PPP had just read a news story about Navy SEALs attacking Obama for taking credit for killing bin Laden right before getting a call from a pollster. The Zaller model suggests that would lead them, if they were uniformed or a Republican partisan, to answer that Romney was more responsible, or that they were unsure, just since the anti-Obama story was at the top of their head. But it doesn’t mean that the person actually thought Romney killed bin Laden.

Some have suggested that the PPP poll is indicative of epistemic closure among Republicans, that they have closed ranks around their own worldview so tightly that they won’t let inconsistent facts, like Obama killing bin Laden, into it. The motivated reasoning literature suggests that may be part of what’s going on. But the Zaller model should remind us that, unlike people who read this blog, most Americans only have a casual interest in politics, and don’t have particularly consistent or well-thought-through views on most political topics. You can consider that troubling or not, but it does caution against inferring from the poll that there are thousands of Ohio Republicans holding fast to a strong belief that Romney, somehow, got bin Laden killed.

So more than likely, 1 in 6 Ohio Republicans aren’t living in an alternative fantasy world where Mitt Romney, private citizen, took control of the military and ordered the raid to get bin Laden.

Not that the alternative explanations for the polling results provide much comfort for those of us who believe democracy relies on an informed electorate.

 

 

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