Noam Scheiber of The New Republic offered an in-depth look Friday at “The Internal Polls That Made Mitt Romney Think He’d Win.” (Ed Kilgore offers a good summary of how “Team Mitt Fell Prey to Two Big Myths.”)
Nate Silver, who’s famous for sorting out the accurate from the misleading in polling data, says that “When Internal Polls Mislead, a Whole Campaign May Be to Blame.”
Silver offers some thoughts on the perils of internal polling:
The problems with internal polls may run deeper than the tendency for campaigns to report them to the public in a selective or manipulative way. The campaigns may also be fooling themselves.
Our self-perceptions are very often more optimistic than the reality; 80 percent of people think they are above-average drivers, for example.
… A pollster working within a campaign may face a variety of perverse incentives that compete with his ability to produce the most accurate possible results to his candidate. He may worry about harming the morale of the candidate or the campaign if he delivers bad news. Or he may be worried that the campaign will no longer be interested in his services if the candidate feels the race is hopeless.
This reminds me of one of my favorite biblical characters, the sulky, sarcastic prophet Micaiah, whose story is told in 1 Kings 22.
Ahab, the wicked king of Israel, is trying to recruit Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, to join him in going to war against their mutual enemy. Being a good king, Jehoshaphat suggests that they first consult with the prophets of the Lord.
So Ahab assembles his internal pollsters, the flattering court prophets:
Then the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, about 400 of them, and said to them, “Shall I go to battle against Ramoth-gilead, or shall I refrain?”
They said, “Go up; for the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.”
Jehoshaphat is a bit skeptical of the prophets on Ahab’s payroll and asks “Is there no other prophet of the Lord here of whom we may inquire?” Ahab says:
“There is still one other by whom we may inquire of the Lord, Micaiah son of Imlah; but I hate him, for he never prophesies anything favorable about me, but only disaster.”
Jehoshaphat won’t budge until he hears what Micaiah has to say, so the hateful prophet is summoned. He arrives to quite the scene, with all 400 of Ahab’s loyal yes-men enthusiastically cheering for Team Ahab.
The king of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah were sitting on their thrones, arrayed in their robes, at the threshing-floor at the entrance of the gate of Samaria; and all the prophets were prophesying before them.
Zedekiah son of Chenaanah made for himself horns of iron, and he said, “Thus says the Lord: With these you shall gore the Arameans until they are destroyed.”
All the prophets were prophesying the same and saying, “Go up to Ramoth-gilead and triumph; the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.”
Ahab asks Micaiah the same question that the rest of these prophets have already answered, “Shall we go to Ramoth-gilead to battle, or shall we refrain?”
The story in 1 Kings doesn’t say that Micaiah smirked or that he was being sarcastic. It doesn’t have to say that. Ahab’s reply tells us all we need to know about Micaiah’s tone of voice: “How many times must I make you swear to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?”
Fine then, Micaiah says, you really want to hear the truth, I’ll tell you the truth: “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep that have no shepherd; and the Lord said, ‘These have no master; let each one go home in peace.'”
Ahab turns to Jehoshaphat and says, See?, “Did I not tell you that he would not prophesy anything favorable about me, but only disaster?”
But Micaiah isn’t done yet. He has a thing or two to say to the 400 court prophets cheering for Ahab’s war:
Then Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, with all the host of heaven standing beside him to the right and to the left of him. And the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, so that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ Then one said one thing, and another said another, until a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ ‘How?’ the Lord asked him. He replied, ‘I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do it.’ So you see, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has decreed disaster for you.”
Then Zedekiah son of Chenaanah came up to Micaiah, slapped him on the cheek, and said, “Which way did the spirit of the Lord pass from me to speak to you?”
Micaiah replied, “You will find out on that day when you go in to hide in an inner chamber.”
The king of Israel then ordered, “Take Micaiah, and … put this fellow in prison, and feed him on reduced rations of bread and water until I come in peace.”
Micaiah said, “If you return in peace, the Lord has not spoken by me.” And he said, “Hear, you peoples, all of you!”
I think getting thrown into prison and fed “reduced rations of bread and water” for delivering bad news is a pretty vivid example of the kind of “perverse incentives that compete with his ability to produce the most accurate possible results” Silver described.
1 Kings goes on to tell us the rest of Ahab’s story. He went to war and it ended just as disastrously as Micaiah had prophesied.
But then we’re left with one of the most annoyingly fragmentary stories in the scriptures. We never come back to poor Micaiah in prison or hear what became of him. That portentously specific bit of foreshadowing he gives to the false prophet Zedekiah — “You will find out on that day when you go in to hide in an inner chamber” — is just left hanging.
Frustrating, that. It’s just shoddy storytelling to write “You will find out …” and then forget to let your readers find out. This seems like fertile territory for a bit of biblical fan fiction. If the authors and editors of 1 Kings (and 2 Chronicles) couldn’t be bothered to supply us with a proper resolution to the stories of Micaiah and Zedekiah, then maybe we should just write one ourselves.