What the IRS did wrong: it didn’t go far enough

You may or may not remember Dean Chambers, the “unskewed polls” guy, a conservative who had his 15 minutes of fame (and now years of infamy) late in the 2012 election cycle when he decided that all mainstream polls were skewed to favor Barack Obama, based on his misunderstanding of how polling works.

I won’t go into details of what he did wrong, but Chambers was at the forefront of the poll birther movement amongst conservatives. Arguably he started it.

Chambers “unskewed” polls from nationally respected polling firms with decades of solid performance behind them by intentionally skewing the so-called “turnout model”, something that Dean wrongly thought that these pollsters were already doing, based on his belief that either more Republicans would turn out to vote than Democrats, or that they’d turn out in roughly equal numbers.

What Dean didn’t understand is that there was no intentional correlation between the partisanship of a poll sample (36% Democrat, 32% Repub, 32% Indy/other) and the other results. Mainstream polling firms go to great lengths to make their samples random. If 36% of respondents identify as Democrats, that’s because their random sample ended up calling that many people who identify that way. It’s not because that firm decided that on election day, 36% of voters would be Democrats based on a model.

What Chambers ended up doing was exactly what he wrongly accused mainstream pollsters of having done. He arbitrarily decided (without a model of any kind) what 2012 turnout would be like (I’m sure he was thinking 2010), and then massaged the results of each poll as if fewer Democrats and more Republicans had been sampled.

In other words, he took unbiased, unskewed and mostly accurate polls, and gave them a bias that benefited Republican candidates.

Predictably, that didn’t work.

Although most pollsters did end up being biased, the vast majority were biased towards the Republican candidate in 2012. Of 23 major pollsters, only four were biased towards the Democratic candidate, and the most inaccurate pollsters of the cycle were Gallup and Rasmussen. Dean relied on both of them heavily in 2012, believing that they were the only truly accurate pollsters since they were just about the only two who consistently showed Mitt Romney winning the election.

Chambers wrote a mea culpa after the election and admitted that he didn’t know what he was doing, but he went right back to faking polls to benefit Republicans within months, and on top showing himself to be a bigot and homophobe, tried to convince people that his faking of polls would have been spot on, if not for the Obama campaign stealing the election through vote fraud (for which he provides zero evidence.)

He also thinks that IRS is somehow suppressing votes in support of same-sex marriage, the Obama administration has a secret plan to arrest political opponents, that Nate Silver had insider info from the Obama campaign, and that the IRS stole a Senate majority from the GOP last year.

He’s now moved on to his second or third excuse for getting 2012 horribly wrong: the IRS did it! How? By targeting Tea Party groups that were working to elect Mitt Romney.

Think about that for a minute, because it goes to the heart of this supposed “scandal” and Dean Chambers isn’t the first person to accidentally make this revealing claim.

The “scandal” is supposed to be that the IRS was using partisan politics to target Tea Party groups for extra scrutiny in its Determinations Unit, the group responsible for investigating 501(c)(4) social welfare tax-exempt applications to see if they are what they claim be. Even though the Treasury Inspector General report largely found that narrative to be false, the imagined travesty is that these groups weren’t political and therefore unfairly targeted.

Yet for the Chambers conspiracy theory to be right, they’d have to be political. Otherwise, their alleged suppression wouldn’t have had any effect on the 2012 election. The only way suppressing these groups could have harmed Mitt Romney is if they were mostly political organizations working to elect a specific candidate, which is precisely the illegal behavior that the IRS is required by law to discover.

It is an impossible contradiction to simultaneously claim that these Tea Party groups were apolitical social welfare organizations that were unfairly targeted by the IRS, and that Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election because these groups were stopped by the IRS from helping him win.

These kinds of manic excuses only underscore the true scandal that everyone is ignoring: 501(c)(4) groups are abusing loopholes in campaign finance law to spend hundreds of millions to influence elections in total secrecy. The scandal isn’t that the IRS did something wrong or even went too far, it’s that the IRS hasn’t gone nearly far enough in rooting out these ultra-political organizations.

And Congress, for its part, hasn’t tried hard enough to crack down on all this secret spending either.

Paul Tenny

Paul Tenny

I'm not a journalist but I do it anyway. I cover elections and have interviewed television writers and producers.
Paul Tenny

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