Donald J. Trump did not invent the art of political spinning. But he has perhaps raised it to an infernally high standard of sheer mendacity in his determination to attack any information suggesting he is anything other than the most wildly successful and popular politician since Pericles. That means, among other troubling things, that he is engaged in a perpetual war against the scientific measurement of public opinion.
Earlier this week Politico reported that the Trump reelection campaign’s internal polling was giving POTUS some bad news:
The Trump campaign recently completed a 17-state polling project that concluded the president trails Joe Biden in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, according to two people briefed on the results. America First Action, the principal pro-Trump super PAC, is expected to conduct its own polling and focus groups in Pennsylvania and Michigan later this summer.
Then the New York Times reported that Trump was trying hard to suppress this bad news:
After being briefed on a devastating 17-state poll conducted by his campaign pollster, Tony Fabrizio, Mr. Trump told aides to deny that his internal polling showed him trailing Mr. Biden in many of the states he needs to win, even though he is also trailing in public polls from key states like Texas, Michigan and Pennsylvania. And when top-line details of the polling leaked, including numbers showing the president lagging in a cluster of critical Rust Belt states, Mr. Trump instructed aides to say publicly that other data showed him doing well.
Trump then lashed out on Twitter with a characteristic “kill the messenger” maneuver:
There are several fascinating things about this messaging. First of all, Trump is projecting his efforts to suppress polling information by claiming polls are suppressing actual public opinion (a subset of his unsubstantiated claim that approximately 10 percent of his fans are terrified to admit it to pollsters because they have been terrorized by Liberal Elites).
Second of all, he’s not simply denying well-sourced reports of bad internal polls, but inverting them: He’s never been more popular! That’s like a campaign whose wheels are falling off issuing bravado predictions of total victory everywhere to keep staff morale from collapsing and creditors from repossessing the furniture.
And third of all, Trump is citing an old lie to support a new one: The assertion that 2016 polls were faked and totally wrong.
Nate Silver has done his best to beat this lie to death, but it persists:
[The] myth is that Trump’s victory represented some sort of catastrophic failure for the polls. Trump outperformed his national polls by only 1 to 2 percentage points in losing the popular vote to Clinton, making them slightly closer to the mark than they were in 2012. Meanwhile, he beat his polls by only 2 to 3 percentage points in the average swing state. Certainly, there were individual pollsters that had some explaining to do, especially in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where Trump beat his polls by a larger amount. But the result was not some sort of massive outlier; on the contrary, the polls were pretty much as accurate as they’d been, on average, since 1968.
Because Trump’s standard for the reliability of polls is how good they make him look, he perpetually hypes Rasmussen surveys:
As Aaron Rupar notes, this is an effort to drive good data out with bad:
There are a couple of reasons not to give much credence to Trump’s tweet. First, as CNN detailed in December, Rasmussen — which is known to skew to the right — was the least accurate pollster out of any that released generic congressional ballot polls in the runup to November’s midterm elections …
Secondly, and relatedly, the Rasmussen poll Trump cited is an outlier when compared to others. For instance, RealClearPolitics’ aggregated polling of Trump’s approval rating, which includes Rasmussen, currently has it pegged at a much more problematic 44 percent, with 53 percent disapproving of his job performance.
This description actually understates the extent to which Rasmussen is a perpetual outlier: Not a single national public poll from any other outlet has ever shown Trump’s approval rating at 50 percent or higher, even in those “honeymoon” days immediately following his inauguration. He is the most consistently unpopular president since public opinion surveying began.
That does not mean his goose is cooked in 2020; he was unpopular when he was elected in 2016, too. But presidential elections, even those involving incumbents, are at least partially comparative, not a straight referendum on the current occupant of the White House. So there is most definitely a chance that he can again slither across the finish line via a combination of lowering his Democratic opponent’s popularity to a level near his own, and then pulling an inside straight in the Electoral College even if he again loses the popular vote.
In other words, Trump doesn’t have to lie about polls to maintain a credible candidacy for reelection. He just seems to prefer behaving that way. It is, at least, consistent with his treatment of other inconvenient facts.