If trash-talking unfavorable poll results were an art form, President Donald Trump would be our Michelangelo. Or at least our Pollock.
“If I didn’t have the Phony Witch Hunt going on for 3 years, and if the Fake News Media and their partner in Crime, the Democrats, would have played it straight,” Trump tweeted Wednesday, “I would be way up in the Polls right now – with our Economy, winning by 20 points. But I’m winning anyway!”
But in a Tuesday interview, his 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale indicated Trump’s reelection effort will attempt to portray public opinion research as itself unreliable, even impossible — including Fox News surveys. It may be a preview of the campaign’s efforts to downplay the importance of polls as Trump, a significantly unpopular president according to numerous credible polls, tries to win another term.
“The country is too complex now just to call a couple hundred people and ask them what they think,” Parscale told CBS News’ Major Garrett. “The way turnout now works — the abilities that we have to turnout voters — the polling can’t understand that.”
The 2016 polling, he said, “was 100% wrong.”
It’s likely not a coincidence that the comments followed a leak last month of internal Trump campaign polls that showed the President’s steep uphill climb to reelection. Trump eventually tweeted last week that the reportedly leaked numbers “don’t even exist” and that the real numbers were “the best numbers WE have ever had.”
Then the campaign acknowledged the polls, but said newer, different ones that asked about Democrats’ specific policies — making the results highly dependent on how those policies were described — “have seen huge swings in the President’s favor” across 17 surveyed states. Then the campaign severed ties with several pollsters.
Parscale told NBC News on Sunday: “All news about the President’s polling is completely false. The President’s new polling is extraordinary and his numbers have never been better.”
The Trump campaign did not respond to TPM’s request for comment, but experts said they smelled puffery.
“I take every comment from Brad Parscale as a joke, and they’re mostly bad jokes,” said Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “It seems clear that the reason for his comments now is the release of these bad poll numbers from Trump’s internal polling, which have precipitated the departure of pollsters bringing bad news. All of that makes the comments in some ways farcical.”
Parscale, Ornstein said, is “trying to explain away bad results for Trump,” as well as “trying as best he can to keep anything that will cause Trump to erupt and disrupt whatever they’re trying to do to make the campaign a professional one.”
For one thing, Parscale’s line about the 2016 polls being completely wrong isn’t true. As FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver summarized after the 2016 election, referring to Trump’s swing state victories:
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 [than 2-3%]. 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.
The undermining of polling data — except when they favor Trump — also easily fits Trump’s existing narrative. “Only Fake Polls show us behind the Motley Crew” of Democrats, he tweeted Monday.
“Trump’s whole political pitch is framed around a distrust of elites, and I think you could lump the media and pollsters into that,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the University of Virginia-based polling newsletter Sabato’s Crystal Ball.
Still, Kondik noted, “the expectations game probably benefitted Trump in 2016,” given that he appeared to be an underdog.
There are certainly issues with contemporary polling practices — poor response rates, declining use of landline phones, discrepancies in voting according to education level, the spread of spam callers — as well as with political reporting that distorts data and makes one-off outlier polls into “stories in and of themselves,” in Ornstein’s words.
But, Kondik predicted, there’s no landslide in Trump’s future, as Parscale forecast to CBS.
“Even if you assume that the polls are understating Trump’s support at a level commensurate with 2016,” he said, “even if you give Trump the benefit of the doubt in these polls, it’s still reflective of a competitive general election.”
And Trump’s anger may distort his campaign’s own numbers, Ornstein noted.
“My guess is if you bring around you people who are professionals, they’re not going to believe that stuff,” he said. “But they also know what their jobs depend on.”