Nothing illustrates the self-interested moral relativism characterizing our president’s worldview quite like his purely instrumental view of public-opinion research. If it redounds to his power and glory, it’s wonderful and worth proclaiming to the whole world like some sort of heathen gospel. If it doesn’t, then it’s “fake” and the mendacious work of his anti-American enemies.
Since Trump hasn’t had that much to brag about in the way of polling results as president, it’s sometimes hard to remember that polls were about all he talked about in the early days of his 2016 campaign. Here’s a reminder from Politico in December 2015:
Poll numbers are, unlike perhaps any candidate in history, central to Trump’s pitch to voters. In his telephone and in-person morning talk show interviews and his evening rallies, not to mention on his hyperactive Twitter account, he rarely lets an opportunity escape without mentioning his titanic standing. “Wow, my poll numbers have just been announced and have gone through the roof!” Trump tweeted Thursday morning …
One Trump insider likens Trump’s obsession with his poll numbers to a TV executive’s hunger for ratings: “It’s a barometer of success.”
He was fairly promiscuous in praise of pollsters, so long as they made him look good:
After a favorable poll release from CNN last week, for instance, he tweeted his thanks to the network and political team for “very professional reporting.”
After he won the Republican presidential nomination, however, the support he had been getting from a surprisingly large plurality of Republican primary voters didn’t project so well onto the much bigger landscape of a general-election audience. In the RealClearPolitics national polling averages of the general election, Trump led Hillary Clinton for two brief moments, in May and then in July. But for the most part, he trailed HRC, which led, of course, to the Myth of Bad 2016 Polls, which Trump is still repeating today:
The reality is that 2016 polling was reasonably accurate, as Nate Silver, who thought more highly of Trump’s chances than most observers, pointed out in his exhaustive postmortem about erroneous expectations of a Clinton win:
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.
Yes, many pundits relying on polls overinterpreted them and did not anticipate Trump’s success in threading the needle and winning the electoral vote even as he lost the national popular vote by a pretty decisive margin. There’s a fair amount of evidence that the results surprised Team Trump, too. But the polls weren’t “fake.” And even if they were grievously in error in 2016, many polling outlets have made adjustments to their methodologies to increase accuracy, most notably by weighting samples for education levels to avoid the undersampling of non-college-educated white voters that may have artificially depressed support for Trump in some 2016 surveys.
None of this seems to matter to the president, for whom polling results are nothing more than agitprop to be praised or attacked, depending on how well they show him faring. Since recent head-to-head polls matching Trump against Joe Biden have been pretty generally negative for him (he trails the Democrat by 6.3 percent in the RCP polling averages), he’s on the warpath again. According to multiple accounts, his campaign’s internal polls show pretty much the same thing, and he’s sufficiently upset about it to lash out at the people around him, which is par for the course. Here’s how Vanity Fair reported a recent blowup with campaign manager Brad Parscale:
[A]fter Trump’s disinfectant comments set off a new political firestorm — the president reportedly took his anger over his dimming electoral prospects out on Parscale, whom he shouted at over the phone. “[Trump is] pissed because he knows he messed up in those briefings,” one Republican close to the White House told CNN about the president’s attack. CNN, which first reported the news of Trump’s call with Parscale, notes that Trump “berated” the campaign manager for the president’s poor polling numbers, and even threatened to sue Parscale, though the Post reports the comment was intended as a joke.
All in all, it’s clear Trump wants to undermine the credibility of adverse polls as part of a broader project of undermining the credibility of unfriendly media. The erroneous but pervasive myth that polls got 2016 terribly wrong will help him in this endeavor, and if his polling performance improves, he will have no inhibitions about boasting that “even” the fake-news media’s fake polls acknowledge his towering popularity among a grateful populace. The scarier prospect is that he’s preparing to declare adverse election returns “fake” unless they confirm he’s won.