My Facebook feed, email inbox, and the chatter I hear in conservative meetings are all telling me the same thing: the polls -- all of them -- are wrong about Mitt Romney's chances on Nov. 6. Romney, the story goes, is actually tied or leading even though most polls put him four to eight points behind. I wish I could believe this because, dead girl/live boy situations excepted, I'm going to vote for Romney myself. But in the end, I don't believe it.
While it's true that some polls do, indeed, have Democratic "house effects," believing the polls are all wrong would require a large-scale conspiracy for which nobody can show evidence. Thus, I'll concede it: My guy is rather badly behind with only a few weeks until the election. But this doesn't explain why the "all polls are wrong" meme has so much power amongst conservatives. The answer, I think, is simple: Conservatives, for good reasons, have developed a strong suspicion of supposed academic "experts" and tend to doubt them even when they shouldn't.
Some history can help explain why. At least since the New Deal, a large portion of the nation's "expert" class in the universities, media, and government itself has leaned to the political left. The reasons for this are varied: Many well-educated people are convinced, genuinely, by the arguments of smart left-wing thinkers from Karl Marx to John Rawls. Many other people known as "experts" are directly or indirectly subsidized by the government in their jobs as university professors or high-level government officials and therefore have a strong self-interest in a larger state. Others are simply those inclined to want to control other peoples' lives. (This type also gravitates to the far right.) Some experts are basically apolitical people interested in narrow questions who mouth left-wing platitudes to get along with their truly radical colleagues. (This describes a large portion of the professoriate.)
And the record of the expert class has lots of blemishes. Does anybody, left or right, really still support policies like mandatory sterilization for people with mental limitations, criminal justice policies that considered thugs rather than the people they terrorized as "victims," government-built public housing, limitless entitlement cash welfare for teenage mothers, and whole language reading instruction? Probably not. But all of these have a long history of broad support from (mostly) left-wing "experts" in academe and the media. On the other hand, even when conservative-favored public policies like enterprise zones and abstinence-only sex education have proven disappointing in practice, they're rarely moved forward mostly because "experts" wanted them. In the end, a large portion of the left's bad ideas have come from supposed experts. And conservatives, who pride themselves on a common sense, clear-eyed view of the world, have plenty of reasons to treat such experts with suspicion. They've gotten a lot wrong.
And pollsters, although not always part of the academic community, certainly try to act like experts. Even those who are not academics speak in a jargon all their own, keep their specific methodologies secret, and often react with outrage when people question their outcomes.
Polling, of course, is not an exact science like physics or chemistry. But long practice and the profits pollsters can earn by producing accurate results mean that it's hugely unlikely that outsiders, even political pros quite invested in polling results, can really tell pollsters how to do their jobs. So conservatives have good reason to be suspicious of academic "experts" in general but, collectively, there's no good reason to think that the pollsters have it wrong.