The Conservative Media Bubble

In the run up to the election, conservatives and the conservative media rejected the dominant narrative regarding who would win the presidential election. While New York Times blogger Nate Silver analyzed polls and consistently predicted an Obama win, Fox News and the rest of the conservative media insisted that Silver and the polls were skewed and predicted that Romney would win handily. And then Obama won. What happened, exactly?

Barack Obama just trounced a Republican opponent for the second time. But unlike four years ago, when most conservatives saw it coming, Tuesday’s result was, for them, an unpleasant surprise. So many on the right had predicted a Mitt Romney victory, or even a blowout — Dick Morris, George Will, and Michael Barone all predicted the GOP would break 300 electoral votes. Joe Scarborough scoffed at the notion that the election was anything other than a toss-up. Peggy Noonan insisted that those predicting an Obama victory were ignoring the world around them. Even Karl Rove, supposed political genius, missed the bulls-eye. These voices drove the coverage on Fox News, talk radio, the Drudge Report, and conservative blogs.

Those audiences were misinformed.

It is easy to close oneself off inside a conservative echo chamber. And right-leaning outlets like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh’s show are far more intellectually closed than CNN or public radio. If you’re a rank-and-file conservative, you’re probably ready to acknowledge that ideologically friendly media didn’t accurately inform you about Election 2012. Some pundits engaged in wishful thinking; others feigned confidence in hopes that it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy; still others decided it was smart to keep telling right-leaning audiences what they wanted to hear.

On the biggest political story of the year, the conservative media just got its ass handed to it by the mainstream media. And movement conservatives, who believe the MSM is more biased and less rigorous than their alternatives, have no way to explain how their trusted outlets got it wrong, while the New York Times got it right. Hint: The Times hired the most rigorous forecaster it could find.

It ought to be an eye-opening moment.

I grew up hearing that Fox News was the closest there was to an objective and unbiased news channel. Every other channel, in contrast, was liberal, biased, and untrustworthy. There were similar suspicions in my evangelical community of the New York Times and other similar newspapers. The idea was that our conservative news sources got things right, and the others twisted facts and made things up. This election reveals otherwise.

Southern Baptist Convention pollster Ed Stetzer describes how conservatives responded when he, in the weeks leading up to the election, rejected the conservative media narrative and reported accurately what the polls showed:

As a pollster and an evangelical Christian, several people have asked me to weigh in on polls and this election. … On a couple of occasions, I pointed out that it was statistically unlikely for Governor Romney to pull off an upset. Also, when I simply listed the poll numbers indicating President Obama “won” the second and third debates, some screamed “no way” (among other things).

Each time, some folks went crazy, explaining how the stats are all biased, particularly the ones from “those bad people at CNN.” People questioned MY judgment and called me naive– some said I was GLAD President Obama was winning (though I did not support the President’s reelection). Yet, now that everything is over, it appears that my judgment was not the issue– but there are issues of judgment to consider here.

Some said that Romney would win in a “landslide” and others said he would win “handily.” Many wanted to believe it, particularly when it was widely reported and discussed on Fox News. Now that the dust has settled, the question naturally comes: How could this have happened when the statistics said something else?

It appears that some have confused their faith with Fox News– for some, to question the judgment of Fox News cannot be tolerated if you are an evangelical Christian. However, some on Fox News did not serve their viewers well by promoting the myth that polls were biased. I am not saying they are evil, but they were wrong– and some are admitting it now.

Another writer tackling this same question said that conservative political junkies disbelieved the polls because they operated under “the assumption that it is simply not possible to comprehend how anyone would vote to reelect Obama.” I think this is worth emphasizing, because it’s something I’ve seen in the facebook status updates of conservative friends and relatives. They cannot understand why anyone would vote for Obama. They cannot understand why anyone would support Obama. They cannot understand how anyone could be inspired by Obama. Their explanations for the election results run from blaming divine intervention to accusing Obama voters of just being in it for the “handouts” to blaming the election loss on “the slut vote.”

The point worth emphasizing here is that conservatives have created a bubble for themselves, and they have difficulty understanding anything outside of that bubble. How could anyone possibly support Obamacare? How could anyone approve of his support for gay marriage? And on and on. I said before the election that it didn’t bother me that I disagreed with those on the other side of the aisle, but what did bother me is that we seemed to exist in two different realities. Two completely different realities.

Now it is true that perfect objectivity is a standard oft sought but never fully realized. However, I think this election is a reminder that when two people disagree on a matter that involves fact and not subjective opinion, only one of them can be right. This election also reveals the problem of isolating oneself from anyone who disagrees, and the problem with simply rejecting out of hand everything said by those on the other side (I personally try to avoid both of these). I think, also, that conservatives’ tendency to buy into conspiracy theories and distrust experts plays against them (think of young earth creationism).

The thing is, conservatives don’t seem to be learning from this experience. Remember the predictions some conservatives made about what would happen if Obama was elected back in 2008? Yeah, that didn’t turn out so well. Well, in the wake of Obama’s second election, conservatives are at it again, busy making predictions of doom. And honestly? Their predictions make everything they predicted back in 2008 look like a walk in the park. So no, honestly, I’m not sure they’ve learned a thing.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Gordon

    I can understand them not grasping why anyone would vote for Obama, because I feel the same way about Romney. I am astonished that he got more than 5% of the vote.

    • wordsp1nner

      I’m with you, so I can’t really fault them on that. But even though I can’t wrap my head around it emotionally, intellectually I knew that he would get near 50% of the vote. I don’t really think that conservatives understand that there are people–large numbers of people, in fact–who honestly disagree with them.

      • wanderer

        in my opinion this is why I see people commenting on FB about states seceding. They truly, honestly, believe the will of the people was overridden (somehow) and it’s tyrrany. Because they can’t conceive that the majority of the country really doesn’t believe like they do.

  • Kevin Alexander

    Polls are scientific and conservatives mistrust science.

  • machintelligence

    This quote, attributed to Carl Rove, is slightly out of context (it was about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq) but the flavor of the conservative mindset is obvious,

    The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”[2]

  • Anat

    In 2004 I didn’t understand who would want 4 more years of Bush II. Didn’t they see how bad things were? But it seemed people with a different set of values want different things than me.

    • Sarah

      Yeah, that’s how I explain it to my kids : some people think it’s more important that everyone keep the money they earn at their jobs, I believe it’s important to have everyone give a little bit of money to let all kids go to school, to make sure the roads are flat, to pay for policemen and to give people who don’t have jobs money for food and clothes and houses. And I think it’s fair that people who have more money give a bit more of their money to help.

      I was quite pleased with my blue/red city country explanation, too. (it’s simplified, they’re pretty young) I told them that when you live in a city, you ride the bus and the train, and you live close to lots of other people, so you see a lot of people every day, and many of those people look different from you, many talk differently, there are people who you can see don’t have any money, and you’re close to them, seeing them all the time. When you live in the country you don’t see many people, and the people you do see look fairly much like you and live lives fairly like yours. And when you never see anyone who is having trouble, you can easily believe they don’t exist or think that it’s not selfish to keep all of your money to yourself, but when you see them every day you know they’re people just like you and they deserve to go to school and have food and a house.

  • Julian

    On the subject of existing in two separate realities: my experience with the conservatives in my life, especially my parents, indicates that not only would they agree with you, but agree emphatically. Their opinion, of course, is that *we’re* the ones with our heads in the sand, denying reality, and that when calamity overtakes us and we’re rudely awakened from our dreams of Socialist Utopia, whether it’s the result of terrorism or economic armageddon, we’ll come crying to them like frightened children to rescue us from the mess we’ve made for ourselves.

    Holidays are so much more enjoyable since I stopped spending them with family.

    • Stony

      We must be related. My husband and I are the only non-conservatives in both of our families, and they behave this exact way. We are deluded and childish, and are just willfully ignoring *the truth*. (These are also people who constantly recycle the emails about how the ACLU is going to stage a gay pride parade down the middle of the church aisle knocking Bibles out of the hands of babies.) A few of the family are own Medicaid, and one is on disability, and yet they sniff at those “people wanting handouts”. When it all goes to hell in a handbasket, won’t we see who’s right???? And when we calmly point out to them that there is not THAT much changed in Washington, and it still takes mandate vote to change the state constitution, and crime is down, etc etc…..well, we’re just deluded (again). When we pointed out that “redistribution of wealth” would only BENEFIT their broke asses, they were enraged.

      It’s tedious as hell. My FIL is determined that “they” are coming for his guns. I once sat him down and asked him how he thought the mechanism for that would happen. The federal gov? Who? Who has jurisdiction? Who has the manpower? The state gov? They already have laws on the books governing gun ownership. How would they do that anyway? Ask you to turn them in willingly? We sat and hashed this out for about half an hour, and I think he realizes the futility of that line of thinking, but there is always some “They” out there coming to take something from “him”.

      And that’s the biggest fear of all to conservatives. “Something will be taken from me.”

      • Julian

        Yes, exactly, and that “something” can take many forms– but somehow it always comes down to privilege, doesn’t it?

        The clip of Bill O’Reilly bemoaning the White Establishment becoming the minority in America ( is one of the most jaw-droppingly transparent examples I can point to. There are a whole lot of people out there, including my family and quite possibly yours, who are not-so-secretly mourning the fact that they can no longer take things like racial and class privilege for granted anymore, and it’s devastating to them. I could even feel compassion for their pain, which I have no doubt is very real, if they demonstrated in any way that they’re open to learning a lesson from the experience; but all I see is a lot of vicious sulking.

        I love my family, but I don’t trust them, and I sure as hell don’t enjoy spending time with them when politics is the unavoidable undercurrent of any conversation we might have. It sounds like you’re in a similar position, unfortunately. My best wishes for as low-stress a holiday season as you can manage under the circumstances.

      • Rosa

        my father, who never saved a penny in his life and is saved from poverty in retirement (even though he still works part time) by his wife’s state pension, firmly believes that Social Security should have been privatized because “nobody cares about your money like you do” and “private investors always outperform government bureaucrats”.

      • Emmers

        In my experience, whenever I ask people what *mechanism* they think something will happen by, the fluster and flounce and change the subject. Or just double down on saying “it definitely will happen, and damn the mechanism!”

    • Nea

      Haven’t we been through terrorist attacks, natural disaster, and economic armageddon *already*? And without the meltdown of liberalism? Or is this part of the reality that just gets handwaved away as unnecessary?

      • Julian

        Oh, that? That was nothing. Wars and rumors of wars, birth pangs, and whatnot. Signs of the Last Days. No matter how bad things get, it’s nothing compared to how bad things *will* get. And then we’ll see the error of our ways! But don’t come crying to them, because they told us so; we’ve made our bed and now we’ll have to lie in it, etc., etc.

        Honestly, it’s so tedious, especially when, as you point out, there’s so much evidence to the contrary.

    • Carys Birch

      My family is just the same, Julian. I feel you on the tension of family holidays.

  • Sarah-Sophia

    A conservative aquantance of mine believes that the Democrats who were voted into Congress in 2006 caused all the problems of the Bush presidency.

  • machintelligence

    “It should have been a landslide if Romney had run as a true conservative,” said Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center.

    “Tea Partiers will take over the Republican party in the next four years,” Viguerie said.

    Wow. We should be so lucky. Let me put on my Delphic Oracle hat here: If the Tea Party takes over the Republican party, the next election will be won by a landslide.

    • lucrezaborgia

      Reminds me of the laager mentality of Afrikaners.

  • chervil

    I am a former republican. I used to watch Hannity and Colmes, listen to Rush and, just to show my republican creds, I used to love this guy Bob Grant. He may have only been on in my area, but he was conservative, believe me. And I come from a family of conservatives.

    I voted for Bush in 2000. We supported him after 9/11. The whole country rallied around him at that time. Then he went into Iraq. They said there were WMDs hidden there, no they INSISTED. I had my doubts about how this was going to end, but had faith that Bush knew what he was doing.

    Sean Hannity was behind this move 1000%. He talked it up, said we’d be greeted as liberators, they’d throw flowers at our feet. As the war dragged on, there seemed to be no way out, when things were going badly it was “things are going badly we can’t leave now” When things were going well it was “Things are going well, we can’t leave now”. As no WMDs were ever found, we didn’t just leave, the reason for going in in the first place morphed into “freedom” or something and Fox News promoted the latest reason,whatever it was. They never ever looked back and said “we were wrong”. We were never greeted as liberators. The source of information about the WMDs turned out to be a fake. But Fox just kept talking it up, they just kept changing the narrative. It is really amazing to me that anyone would think that Fox is a reliable source of information. This election outcome just proves it again.

    • Rosa

      Nobody remembers. Journalists least of all.

      A long time ago, i was working at our local newspaper and reading it every day. I was also involved in some activism around police and court issues. So I noticed when one year they printed the sheriff’s department statement that long processing times (the time from when a judge frees a prisoner and when they actually get out of jail – it was up to 12-16 hours) in our county jail were because of old computer systems that made administrative work slow, and then a few years later printed a statement from the same department spokesperson that long processing time was because they had a new computer system that still had some issues to work out.

      They could have had an actual story just by checking their own back issues. But instead they just reprinted Sheriff’s Department press releases nearly verbatim whenever a lawsuit made it “news” again.

    • lucrezaborgia

      There were media sources that weren’t all gung-ho about going into Iraq. The conservative media here had absolutely no understanding of what kind of political quagmire Iraq was (and still is) because Saddam’s religion and politics were a minority population. They didn’t understand how under-developed most of Iraq is and how tribal it is. Our military leadership at the time was so woefully uneducated about Iraq as well that they didn’t think for a second that their approach to the war was wrong and if they did, they kept their mouths shut because politics is very much a part of the upper echelons of military power.

      I predicted back then that we would be in Iraq for at least 6 or 7 years, that no one would be welcoming us, and that removing Saddam would turn Iraq into a hydra while the Shiite and Sunni factions turned the streets red with rivers of blood. My conservative friends who had no notion of history (or that many of the problems in the region are because of western powers playing fucking chess with people’s lives) of the region or anything or that most Iraqis are not Arab!!!


      • chervil

        Exactly. It’s one thing to be a lazy reporter, which is reprehensible, it’s another to actually use a “news” program to promote policies from an ignorant frame of reference. It’s completely irresponsible. They helped tie Saddam to bin Laden, false. To this day people think Iraq had some sort of involvement with 9/11. False. Yellowcake? Nonexistent. They promoted the idea that oil revenue would pay for the war. What self respecting oil company would pay for a war, that’s private money. They didn’t just report, they promoted and cheered for this war that broke open the hornets nest that was Iraq and wreaked devastation on that country. George “Mission Accomplished” Bush was a huge hero. Until he suddenly “wasn’t conservative enough” after all.

        Then they promoted this disinformation regarding a Romney win and they couldn’t have been more wrong and it’s all Nate Silver’s fault. To be fair, they say “fair and balanced”, not “accurate and honest”.

        As an aside, whenever they report a sex scandal (usually with another guy) with an “R”, they change it to a “D” and then claim it was a “glich”. They declared “global warming is over”. At least that’s admitting that global warming exists. Also, O’Reilly is way into soft porn on his show. I don’t know if he still does this but throughout his show, up until the last segment, he would show some sort of video of a scantily clad woman doing a seductive dance or something, it would be from a 3rd rate commercial for an unknown product perhaps, that was never aired, but they’d play it as a teaser “coming up a shocking commercial of blah blah blah” You’d have to wait until the end of the show to see the fake outrage for an already pulled ad.

  • smrnda

    I think a major reason American conservatism exists in a bubble is that American conservatives don’t support ideas or policies because they would work or create better results, but because those ideas and policies are seen as inherently right in some metaphysical sense – it’s a type of fundamentalism where what matters isn’t outcomes in this world, but choosing to be on the right side.

    Take the conservative desire for eradicating all government social programs and removing all business and economic regulations. Honest conservatives know this would decrease the standard of living for most people and create a system where upward mobility would barely exist, but they seem to support it anyway since a government non-intervention into the market is taken as being good for it own sake. National health care programs are bad regardless of the outcomes or how well they work elsewhere. No matter the results, abstinence based sex education is right.

    When I talk to conservatives (and I try to listen more than talk) the impression I come away with is that things that I call ‘problems’ – poverty, lack of social mobility, access to education, people without health care – they just don’t see these things as problems at all. The only thing that matters to them is ideological purity.

    I’m not going to put in the obligatory ‘well, the left does that too’ since I don’t really see the same level of disconnect, at least at present in this country. People are usually on the left since they tried to identify problems and find evidence based solutions. When conservatives are trying to convince me that liberal policies will all end in disaster, we have quite a few countries that provide empirical evidence to the contrary, but American conservatives aren’t basing their views on empirical evidence.

    The echo chamber, which may have emerged in its current form with Rush Limbaugh, probably has a lot to do with this as well. It’s a place where right-wingers denounce liberals mostly with childish name-calling, but where no substantive criticisms are ever made. People aren’t opposing or supporting ideas because of reasons, but because of right-wing pep talks that appeal pretty much exclusively to gut instincts. It also creates that ‘in group’ effect where nobody even thinks why someone might see a government regulation as something good, or why someone might support gay marriage – opposing viewpoints are ridiculed and disparaged, but never really examined rationally.

    • Rosie

      I think you’re right. When I was still religious and conservative, I really did think that if everyone just lived “by the Bible” (meaning, “by the conservative evangelical interpretation of the Bible”), we could solve all kinds of problems, though HOW that would happen was rather obscure. Or rather, it was thought that the only problem worth addressing was the lack of Biblical morality in the culture; everything else would either be solved by Biblical morality or could not possibly be solved by any means.

      Imagine my surprise when I realized that many of these problems CAN be solved, or at least significantly abated, by the very policies my family railed against! Imagine my surprise when I realized that my family’s insistence on their conservative morality actually was exacerbating some of the problems they ranted against. These days, it seems like the more I open my eyes and look around the more liberal I get. Which is not at all what I expected when I first started looking into things.

    • machintelligence

      The only thing that matters to them is ideological purity.

      This is not entirely true. There is a great TED talk on this topic (vintage 2008).

  • Saraquill

    The conservative people and their dire predictions that you linked to come rather across as Chicken Little.

    • machintelligence

      There is this response from an elementary school student, who was asked by a teacher what the farmer probably said when Chicken Little told him the sky was falling: “Holy shit, a talking chicken!”

      • Noelle


  • Kubrick’s Rube

    Their explanations for the election results run [...] to accusing Obama voters of just being in it for the “handouts” to blaming the election loss on “the slut vote.”

    It seems that many conservatives believe that everyone accepted their formulations of Obama’s policies and agenda and then voted for him anyway. They can’t comprehend that anyone thinks they are wrong.

    • Bix

      I think that’s it. They just don’t understand that people disagreed with them, on a policy level, and instead of engaging with those disagreements, they’re disparaging the electorate. I think they thought Obama supporters were an abstract blob of people that didn’t really exist, except as a strawthing to position as, I would assume, the unReal America, and then were shocked to discover that the strawthing is actually composed of slightly over half the voting population, because people who aren’t older white men get to vote now.

  • Rosie

    Considering how the ultra-right defines “slut”, I’m sure the “slut vote” did make a fair difference (look at how many GOP “rape candidates” lost their races). And I’m proud to be a part of it!

  • Lana

    I did *not* think Romney would win, and I voted mostly conservative. *smile* In fact, I love oversees, and I not only never watched the election night, but I didn’t even think the next day to check the polls (as I’m only 14 hours ahead of New York, the next morning the votes still were not all in) to see who one because I already knew. I also didn’t have any conservative friends say they were surprised. One friend told me, before the election, when I tried to burst her bubble, “dont’ tell me. I’ll be depressed when it happens.” She knew, lol.

  • Rae

    Yeah. I ended up finding out the best way to say it is “Most of the people who voted for Obama last election will probably vote for him again, because he did what they had wanted him to do.” Because then they don’t have to wrap their heads as much around why people would want to vote for him in the first place, just that the people who did probably wouldn’t change their minds.

    I did have an argument with one conservative about that, though – he had posted on Facebook an article by a pundit who said that NY could “flip” and go Republican. I said that it was a long shot, but it would largely depend on how difficult Sandy had made it for NYC residents to get to the polls (since that’s where a large majority of NY’s democratic votes come from). Then he replied saying that this wasn’t even taking Sandy into account, just some kind of hypothesizing that projected that in a regular natural-disaster-free election cycle. I just left it alone after that…

  • Amelia

    “They cannot understand why anyone would vote for Obama. They cannot understand why anyone would support Obama. They cannot understand how anyone could be inspired by Obama.”

    And those of us in the rest of the world cannot understand how Mitt Romney wound up being a presidential candidate. I mean, really? I had dozens of FB posts on my newsfeed in the days leading up to the vote willing Obama on, and one friend even jokingly suggested that if Romney won, then perhaps we should assume the Mayans were right – and it was the end of the world.

  • Carys Birch

    Sadly, the bubble still hasn’t broken. My parents are insisting that Obama’s victory was a “squeaker”. When I pointed out that he won the popular vote AND by 100 votes in the electoral college, my dad complained that the electoral college is currently rigged in favor of the Democrats, and that if the country was “arranged differently” those electoral votes would have gone for Romney. Right. As if having our population centers in the middle of the country instead of on the edges would make them more conservative. I just boggled.

    My mother, on the other hand, was more forthright. She blamed the outcome on “silly women, led astray.” I can’t even fathom having so little respect for myself that I’d want to forfeit the vote.

    • Steve

      The smallest – usually red – states actually have a disproportionate amount of votes. Even the smallest states get 3 votes. So for example North Dakota has about one elector per 230.000 people. The overall average is around one per 500.000 people

    • Katherine

      I wonder if your dad complained this much about electoral college when George Bush won.

      • Carys Birch

        Oh I know… actually, I’m from a very small (blue) state (That should make it a fairly easy guess lol), so I’m acutely aware of the total inconsequence we’d have nationally without the electoral college.

      • Carys Birch

        Whoops, this really should have been a reply to Steve above. Bad Carys.

    • Rosa

      “arranged differently” – like, not by population? Is your dad so conservative he’s a monarchist?

      • Carys Birch

        I think he’s slyly implying that blue states are blue because of immigration. It’s stealth racism.

    • michaelbusch

      In fairness, Silver’s model does suggest that given the current distribution of population and assignment of electoral votes, a Republican candidate that had 50% of the national vote would be more likely than not to lose the electoral college. Basically, some states are almost entirely Republican-leaning, which gives less electoral college votes than a just-greater than 50% margin in all 50 states. But that margin is only _15_ electoral votes and will change when the electoral college votes are reassigned after the 2020 census ( ).

      One observation about Fox News in particular: their science coverage is worse than average for mass-market news media. This applies even on matters other than human sexuality, environmentalism, and climate change (on those three, there is even clearer a partisan agenda). The cause and effect is hard to disentangle here, but maybe that general lack of scientific expertise plays into the rejection of statistics and math in the form of the election forecasts.

  • Sheena

    “They cannot understand why anyone would vote for Obama. They cannot understand why anyone would support Obama. They cannot understand how anyone could be inspired by Obama.”

    This attitude — this certainty that they are right, and that everyone else really agrees with them (even if people have convinced themselves otherwise), is rampant in the fundamentalist mindset (and creeping into the evangelical perspective).
    Whether it’s about voting or church attendance, so many have the attitude that others KNOW they are right — others KNOW that God exists, that Church ABC is right, that Certain Action is unforgivable sin, that Romney is God’s choice — but refuse to accept it. And then, when that perspective is defeated (like with election results), they (first group) cannot process that they weren’t 100% right or able to convince others of that rightness.

    I had a professor in college who would frame each of his opinions this way — that human life absolutely started at conception, that Obama was not a Christian, that female students were all future schoolteachers, that women/girls should only wear dresses, that Virginia Tech’s football team was the best football team ever. I always sat near the door in his classes so I could “suddenly need to use the restroom” when I got cranky.