Sunday, November 11, 2012
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Metro columnist Dan Casey: Obscure guy gets famous overnight

Dan Casey is The Roanoke Times' metro columnist.

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@roanoke.com

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Once upon a time nine weeks ago, there was a guy nobody had ever heard of in Duffield, a tiny Scott County town deep in the heart of Virginia coal country. As the crow flies, it's about 40 miles or so west of Abingdon.

His name is Dean Chambers, he's 45, unmarried, with no kids, and he grew up on Cape Cod. Years ago, he earned a political science degree from a college in Maine, and later did some graduate work at the University of Tennessee.

His ardent hobby was writing about politics from a conservative perspective. Chambers published his work on The Examiner, a citizen-journalism website that pays authors about six-tenths of a penny each time someone reads one of their stories.

But his efforts languished there in relative obscurity, buried under a mountain of more provocative stuff.

Last week, The Examiner had 492 articles about contrails, 3,500 about Bigfoot, 45,000 about the tea party, and 368,000 that mentioned Britney Spears.

So for years, Chambers had paid his bills working in tech support jobs for outfits such as AOL while he bounced around the western United States.

By March, he had dropped his last tech job and moved to Duffield because his brother and sister-in-law already lived there. And those small checks from The Examiner dribbled in.

Initially, those had amounted to little more than pocket change. But by the end of August, a respectable amount was coming in — about $120 per day, paid monthly.

That wasn't steak and lobster, but it was a living. Still, after federal and state taxes, the self-employment tax, rent for his apartment and other expenses, there wasn't a lot left over.

Then one day Chambers hit upon an idea: He'd "correct" all those polls that showed Mitt Romney, the presidential candidate he preferred, losing the race.

He believed most of the polls favoring President Obama were biased. The pollsters were sampling 5 percent to 7 percent more Democratic voters than Republicans. There was no way the Election Day turnout was going to be anything like that, Chambers reasoned.

So he created the website UnskewedPolls.com and published the "unskewed" numbers there and on The Examiner, after he worked a bit of statistical magic.

His arguments were very convincing to many Romney supporters in the dog days of early and mid-September. Back then, it seemed like their guy was behind and his campaign was spinning its wheels.

With Chambers' unskewed polls, the Romney cohorts were much happier. For one thing, the unskewed numbers put their guy ahead, right where they desperately wanted him to be.

Soon, Rush Limbaugh heard about Chambers and started touting his website and analyses to millions of listeners.

On Sept. 11, Limbaugh read the entirety of one of Chambers' Examiner stories on the air. Chambers was listening to that show when that happened. It was kind of surreal.

Sean Hannity, Fox News and the Drudge Report quickly followed suit. Chambers' theory was endorsed by the noted pundit and former pollster Dick Morris.

As a result, the nobody from Duffield became somebody. He was a toast of conservative talk radio, the savvy analyst who cannily pierced through the phony poll numbers carried in the smug, know-it-all media.

The pollsters dismissed Chambers as a quack, of course. And some creepy liberals phoned and called him unkind names such as "fat idiot." But to conservatives hungry for some good election news, he was a hero.

They couldn't get enough. From Romney campaign honchos to the Roanoke Tea Party leadership, lots of people bought Chambers' biased-polls theory.

The week before the election, Chambers predicted that Romney would win states worth 301 electoral votes and Obama's total would end up at 237.

About that time, Chambers also published an article questioning the manhood of Nate Silver, the New York Times poll-analyzing guru. All summer long, Silver had predicted an Obama win. He was a bane of Romney partisans' existence.

UnskewedPolls.com got slammed with traffic. Page views for Chambers' stories on The Examiner shot up like a Saturn rocket, to an average of 45,000 to 60,000 a day. The higher number translates into $360 a day, or almost $11,000 per month. That's serious metro-columnist-envy territory.

Some days — such as Election Day — Chambers' stories got 110,000 page views. That was worth $660.

All of this I learned by spending about two and a half hours on the phone with Chambers — 90 minutes the Friday before the election and another hour on the day after the election.

Chambers is a nice guy. He's seems like a sincere and earnest fellow. He's not a jerk on the phone, nor does he come off as a kook, or some rabid head case who spouts off about birth certificates and the president's college transcripts.

But it turned out that Chambers was dead wrong about the bias he perceived by those established pollsters. Their assumptions that roughly 6 percent more Democrats would turn out than Republicans were precisely correct.

He forthrightly acknowledged that during our talk Wednesday. That same day, he wrote another column for The Examiner admitting it. He also apologized to Silver for writing that he was skinny and effeminate-sounding.

"The polls in general weren't as skewed as I thought they were, because the [pollsters'] assumptions that I thought were incorrect weren't incorrect," he told me.

So where does Chambers go from here? He says he'll carry on writing. He's eyeing some other projects. On Thursday, he purchased the domain name conservativereform.com.

The traffic for his stories on The Examiner is still strong. And that's because the Internet has pretty much blown to smithereens many of the previous filters that used to exist in "journalism."

Rightly or wrongly, we in this business of journalism have long fancied ourselves as guardians of the truth. At the very least, we believed we kept the crazy out of the national conversation.

But it's not that way anymore. Either by intention or accident, Chambers discovered you can make some serious money fueling people's delusions.

It's possible he's a flash in the pan who scored some quick bucks, and that he'll fade back into obscurity, like the courtiers who fled town after they conned the king in the fable "The Emperor's New Clothes."

But thanks to the Internet, it seems just as likely that the sky's the limit when you're telling people something they want to hear.

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