In 2012, Republicans dismissed unfavorable opinion surveys by “unskewing the polls,” a tendentious exercise in concocting an alternative universe in which Mitt Romney was defeating Barack Obama. The skewing movement attracted enough party elites that Mitt Romney’s campaign genuinely expected to win, and Karl Rove threw a memorable on-air tantrum after Fox News called Ohio for Obama.
Eight years later, facing an even larger polling deficit, and having grown generally less intelligent as a party, Republicans have concocted an even sillier theory for ignoring the polls. It’s about boat parades.
The claim — to call it an “argument” would give it too much credit — is that a series of demonstrations of support for Trump by boat owners provides crucial information about the state of the presidential race. It’s unclear whether the boat parades are supposed to be a better indication of public sentiment than polls, or whether the parades are simply thought to augment the polls by providing additional evidence of enthusiasm that surveys may overlook. Either way, President Trump and his media supporters have enthusiastically touted the boaters.
“The polling is fake …” Trump insisted yesterday. “We have a silent majority the likes of which nobody has seen. I just look – there are thousands of boats in lakes, rivers, & oceans, thousands and thousands of boats … it’s called ‘Boaters for Trump’.” Speaking to Fox & Friends today, the president again brought up the vessels as a superior measure of his support than polls. “I see much more spirit … The boats, just thousands of boats, and that’s all over the country.”
Trump is not necessarily doomed. The polls may be off by a few points, and Trump could easily win the Electoral College even if he loses the national vote. Most importantly, there are almost three months until the election, which is plenty of time for things to change. The polling website FiveThirtyEight gives Trump a 28 percent chance of winning the election, making his cause far from hopeless. If Trump wants to find some grounds for hope in the face of poor polling, reasonable arguments are available.
The partisan skew of recent boat parades, however, is not one of them. For one thing, boat owners are a small and extremely unrepresentative sample of the public. While reliable demographic information is hard to come by, boat owners seem to be whiter, predominantly male, and more affluent than the general public. The strongest Republican constituency is high-income white men without college degrees. Stereotypically, they would seem to be overrepresented among boat owners, but there’s no way to know that for certain.
The far greater flaw in the boat-parade theory is that, despite whatever preexisting political preferences boaters might have had, Trump has deliberately influenced and inflated the numbers. In May, the president began touting a video clip showing a handful of pro-Trump boaters:
In the weeks that followed, Republican organs began energetically promoting videos of Trump fans in boats. This, of course, encouraged more Trump-supporting boat owners to engage in more pro-Trump maritime activity. If Joe Biden’s campaign began hyping up, say, pro-Biden cupcakes, you’d start to see more Biden cupcakes. It wouldn’t indicate anything in particular. There’s nothing special about water-based displays of enthusiasm. The election is going to be held on land.
Yet the pro-Trump media has seized on the boat parades as evidence that Trump is actually leading. The Daily Caller, New York Post, Spectator, Journal of American Greatness, and innumerable Fox News segments have delivered glowing reports of the upsurge in pro-Trump boating.
It is not mere propaganda for the rubes — or, if it is, Trump is one of the rubes himself. The president has repeatedly cited his boats as “a shining exemplar of the enthusiasm gap he enjoys over Biden,” reported the Daily Beast in June, and “has delighted in advisers showing him boater photos and videos that have bubbled up on social media. And during strategy sessions in the past two months, he’s told officials to keep bringing him more and to push out the content on their own accounts, as well.”
It’s possible — indeed, likely — that the Trump boat-parade meme began as a joke. But the joke was then embraced by the president and his supporters and became both a totem of affective partisanship — a way to stick it to the liberals — and a genuine conviction. It is, in short, a synecdoche for the Trump presidency.