POLLING IS AN act of political resistance. It agglomerates the messy and inconvenient opinions of everyday people, kneads them into a whole, and forces them through the door into the air-conditioned echo chambers of political elites. This is not newly true, it’s just newly apparent.
Right now, the polls are an awkward mess steaming on the floor of the Trump Tower lobby, and the president is not happy about it. It’s no wonder. Donald Trump reached the threshold of 50 percent disapproval faster than any president in history. What took other presidents months or years took Trump just days—8 to be precise. The numbers haven’t improved and the latest poll average shows his approval rating remains negative.
Trump took to Twitter on Monday morning to condemn not just these latest polls, but “any negative polls.”
Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election. Sorry, people want border security and extreme vetting.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 6, 2017
Trump’s condemnation of unfavorable polls sounds strong, though it’s actually not all that unique. Any pollster who has issued a poll that goes against powerful interests knows the pushback is often strong and immediate. But if the polls are well done (not always the case), the push of public opinion against powerful interests is a balance worth preserving.
Trump calling bad polls “fake news” is also fairly mild compared to other things I’ve been called as a pollster. Having powerful people call you unprintable names is part of the job. Public opinion is not always a convenient thing for interest groups trying to, say, locate the Olympics in Boston (which polling stopped), or lift the cap on charter schools (which polls showed voters would disapprove). So call us your worst names, we’ll keep bringing the public’s voice.
It’s also questionable to me whether Trump actually believes his own words. Too much of his self-evaluation is wrapped up in poll numbers for him to view them as artificial. Throughout the campaign, and many times since, his public remarks have included extended riffs on poll numbers, especially favorable ones. Press secretary Sean Spicer confirmed Trump still reads them in detail, even “the whole crosstab thing.”
The tweet instead shows the collective disapproval of a majority of Americans is getting under the president’s skin, and he is following his usual practice of hitting back at perceived threats. If you are among those that see poor election polls as a reason to ditch the enterprise, stop and reflect on that for a moment. The American people’s voice is in the president’s ear, and it took a poll to put it there.
Even if he decides not to care about his approval rating, he will at least be aware of the views of voters rather than falling to the temptation of seeing the opposition as fake or smaller than it is, or his support stronger. This tendency was on full display in the first few days of Trump’s presidency, when reporters and even members of the CIA were treated to a days-long sideshow of forcible denial of demonstrable facts about inaugural crowd sizes. Millions of people showed up at the women’s marches, and more occupied the country’s airports on a few hours notice. The polls make it clear the sentiments behind these protests are both real and widely shared.
Trump could choose to listen to the polls rather than trying to undermine them. He heard these voices of everyday Americans throughout the campaign and turned their insight into improbable electoral success. Now that Trump is trapped in DC most of the time, polls offer a way to stay connected. That is not to say he should let polls run his agenda. Leaders don’t and shouldn’t always listen to the voice of the majority. Voters are often fickle, poorly informed, and inconsistent in their views, espousing sets of policies that can’t possibly go together. But polls make it so leaders at least can listen to the voice of the people rather than assuming it is favorable, as Trump seems to want to do.
When it comes to systematic listening, there is no adequate substitute. Polls include more than the people who have the time and inclination to share their views on social media, with a reporter, at a public meeting, or with leaders and legislators. It would be convenient if free social media data could supplant the expensive, painstaking process of a well-designed poll. But while the data can offer some insight, the ways we use social media are still changing too fast to allow durable and rigorous methods. Nothing beats a representative sample, hard as it may be achieve.
To be sure, pollsters are struggling to rebuild their credibility after a spotty performance in 2016. Polls did very well calling the national popular vote, but missed in enough key states to give most in the media and the Clinton campaign a false sense of certainty in predicting the outcome. The polling industry needs to (and will) assess the reasons for the failures and do better. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that pollsters are an extremely self-reflective bunch, and will spend untold ink and hot air assessing what went wrong. The redemption cycle in polling is very long; miss a big election and it’s years of public scorn before you get another chance. It’s not baseball, where a late game homerun can wipe out a whole night of strikeouts.
While pollsters refine their swing for their next election at-bat, there are reasons to stick with the polls in the interim. In the current polling, there is no likely electorate to model, which appears to have been one of the major problems with state polls in the 2016 past cycle. The polls are instead sampling among all registered voters, or even all residents, a much easier task for which the demographics are clear. And the national polls, which are most of what Trump is reacting to, did just fine in the 2016 election, despite the misguided criticism we’ve heard since.
Most of the political trends in recent years have been toward disempowerment of everyday voters. Polling pushes in the other direction. Public opinion polls collect the disparate voices of the people and turn them into an unignorable whole. In so doing, they take power from the top and push it downward, back from government to the people. That’s something voters on both sides should have a reason to support, even if leaders find it irritating.
Steve Koczela is president of the MassINC Polling Group.