by Gabriel Valdez
Hi, Donald Trump! Hi, real poll analytics! Why don’t I ever see you in the same room anymore? Are you secretly the same person?
Trump’s support has repeatedly hit a ceiling of about 35% in Republican polls, right? A full third of Republicans are shouting, “Yay, racism!” From the rest of the Republican field, it seems more like a tepid, “Er, go…go racism, I think. Aren’t we normally more subtle about this?” Which really puts Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz in some difficult positions. It should do the same to Ben Carson, but this cycle’s Rick Santorum 2012 is destined to one day become Rick Santorum 2016.
So…America is obsessed with Trump, right? Everyone’s going to vote for him and he’ll win all 50 states, and ban everything but golf and gambling, right?
Here’s the thing. Trump’s support has hit a ceiling of about 35%, and that’s of registered Republican voters. Registered Republicans make up only about 25% of voters. Registered Democrats make up a bit over 30%, and the rest are independent.
Why hasn’t Trump been able to catapult himself over that ceiling of 35% among Republicans? Because of his ridiculous negatives. His unfavorable rating consistently hovers near 60%. We’re talking about a candidate who might not even be able to win the presidency in an up-down referendum wherein he’s the only candidate.
Furthermore, if you look at the polls being made of Republicans thus far in the cycle, most of them are of any adult or registered Republican. Most of them are internet polls. Most of them are not of the most accurate metric polling can offer: likely voters in live phone polls. These are voters who vote regularly, and Trump’s support among them has been lower by anywhere from 6-10 percentage points throughout most of the campaign.
Why avoid live polling of likely voters when it’s the most statistically accurate metric? Because people click on Trump. I’ll click on him, you’ll click on him, we’ll all click on Trump just to see what crazy, racist, deport-my-born-and-bred-U.S.-citizen-ass bullshit he comes up with next. We click on that bastard like there’s no tomorrow, and that means more ad money for the sites being clicked on. We’ll hang on channels showing him, and that means higher ratings for the networks being watched.
Among likely voters in live phone polls, Trump has never crested 28%. Despite little opposition, his ceiling is fairly established. Why would he struggle to increase that number when other candidates who are polling lower wouldn’t? They aren’t saddled with his negatives. As the Republican field narrows, candidates like Rubio and Cruz (or even dark horses like John Kasich and Chris Christie) will absorb far more of the voters freed up when other candidates drop out.
That doesn’t mean Trump can’t win the GOP primary if the Republican field fails to winnow down. It does mean that, in order to win, he needs most of the 14 candidates still in the race to stay in the race without giving ground through most of the primary cycle. There’s a better chance of that than in most primary elections, but it would still be fairly unprecedented.
Why should all these metrics matter? If Trump is hammering out a maximum of 28% of Republican voters, and Republican voters make up 25% of all voters, that means Trump is polling a whopping…drum roll, please…7% of likely voters. Ooh.
We all wonder why polls are so inaccurate. They really aren’t, if you know which ones to pay attention to and how to read them. CNN, MSNBC, and Fox have no interest in presenting them accurately, giving context, or teaching people how they work. They spit out statistics, no matter how misrepresented, so that others will repeat them ad nauseum. In recent years, there are fewer and fewer independent pollsters. Most now have a patron, and that patron is always in the form of a news network, a newspaper, a think tank, or a PAC (political action committee). The shape of the kinds of polls we take has changed according to what these patrons need to drive their story lines. That’s how we end up with months of coverage about future presidents Herman Cain, Wesley Clark, Howard Dean, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, and Santorum.
These organizations have an interest in creating the most exciting story lines, the ones that’ll make you click on their sites, change to their channels, or share an interview that goes off the rails on YouTube.
Yes, we should continue protesting the ugly things Trump says. What he says encourages and endorses hate crimes, racial violence, and sexual violence. We need to speak out against it, but not just in regards to Trump. What much of the Republican field says encourages these same things.
But we shouldn’t freak out, and we shouldn’t buy into much of the information being sold us about the shape of this election. We should educate ourselves about polls. If you post a news story about a poll, have you clicked on that poll and actually looked at the questions being asked? Do you know if a poll’s questions are worded in a leading manner? Do you know how the poll was taken – online, automated phone, live phone. Was it of all adults who responded, registered voters, or likely voters? Was a particular demographic relied upon to supply answers? Is the sample size even realistically viable? Chances are, you don’t know any of those things when you post a poll, so why are we posting them as if they’re facts?
We’re so quick to post articles about how Americans are getting less education, about how we’re understanding less and less by generation, about how facts are becoming more malleable than they once were, about how specific groups of people are being less represented in our history books. Polls and the story lines created off them are all this in a nutshell, but we post them as if they are fact. We need to stop thinking that we are immune to understanding less and relying on fact less. We have our blind spots, and we succumb to them just as much as a Trump voter might.
We are no better, and we are no worse, but we can’t keep posting these kinds of things without understanding them, and then pretending they’re real representations of how this country thinks. That doesn’t just feed into the networks’ narratives, it feeds into the narratives of people like Trump. It feeds into the narratives that give him more air time, that lets him cause more damage, and that feeds his campaign.
If there’s one success in Trump’s campaign, it’s that he’s the only candidate who understands this. This is the metagame Trump plays, and this is how we feed it. By pretending he’s a front-runner, he becomes more viable in the minds of voters as a front-runner. By pretending the things he has to say, good or bad, are worth listening to, the things he says become more interesting in the minds of voters. By pretending that he’s a serious politician, he becomes a serious politician. The emperor has no clothes, but we are all so convinced he does that we share it as fact, as something impending, as a main attraction instead of a side show.
Without understanding the nature of the stories we post, all we do is drive Trump’s most advantageous narrative – that he is a serious candidate. We’ve done it enough that we’ve made it true, and by doing so, we’ve aided his campaign.
We can oppose the things he says without being afraid of him, without treating him seriously. I’ve written a good amount on polls and how we read them. People always ask, “Why does it matter, they’re just polls?”
Because we share them as fact and treat their realities as fact without bothering to understand them. That makes their realities our own. That means our political reality is now one that helps Trump, even when we oppose him.