The Administration

Why the polls are wrong about Trump. Again.

Today we live in a polling bubble – surveys taken from the perches in New York, Washington and Los Angeles may be obscuring rather than illuminating many of the underlying views and trends of the American electorate.

How else can one explain that although many polls showed a close race last November, almost no one (myself included) predicted a lopsided victory for Donald Trump in the Electoral College. Most media analysts and modelers concluded a Hillary Clinton victory was in the bag. One Princeton professor even agreed to eat a bug if Trump won.

As President Trump enters his 100th day, several of the same organizations are using their polls to proclaim that he has had the worst start of any modern president and the worst ratings of a president at this time in his presidency. While Trump is no FDR when it comes to forming a political coalition, a fairer reading of the polls and the election results shows his performance is probably 5 or 6 points better than is being touted and that his base of support with which he won the election remains intact.

There are several reasons for this mismatch between likely reality and the interpretations we are seeing. Most polls have moved away from voters or likely voters to U.S. adults with no screen for registration or even citizenship. And the questions often focus on storylines and narratives critical of Trump. Rarely are they written from the perspective of having missed the major swings and economic discontent that upended the election.

The current crop of stories also sets Trump ratings expectations, as though America went through the typical process of coming together around the winner. Instead we had recounts, Russian conspiracies, investigations and rallies unlike any seen after any election. The country was sharply politically divided on Election Day and remains that way today. That is the backdrop of any realistic assessment of what is happening in America.

{mosads}But there are some facts and trends that are being missed in the polls.


First, Trump is likely NOT at 40 percent approval with the American electorate. He is likely higher. Trump got 46.1 percent of the popular vote, several million votes less than Clinton did, but neither candidate got a majority. Six million voters opted for a libertarian candidate and most of those votes would never go to a liberal Democrat. And when all of the congressional votes were tallied, Republicans got 3 million more votes than the Democrats and won a majority of both the popular vote and of the seats in Congress.  

The recent special election in Georgia came out about the same as the Trump/Hillary vote, with Republicans nosing out Democrats. As The Washington Post poll reported, a replay of the Trump/Hillary race would today come out more for Trump than Hillary.

So what is the disconnect between polls that show his job rating at 40 and the electoral results? The major network polls all now report “U.S adults” as the sampling frame, not people who voted in the last election or expect to vote in the next one. The non-voters include 11 million undocumented aliens and a lot of folks who liked neither candidate and stayed home, as well as younger people who have lower rates of participation. These polls should not be confused with the views of the American electorate.

If you look just at the past voters, Trump is holding his base – The Washington Post said that 94 percent of Trump voters approve of the job he is doing. That would be 43.1 percent of the voting electorate. Trump then conservatively gets 10 percent approval from the remaining voters (30 percent from voters to other candidates and 8 percent among Clinton voters) which would give him another 5 percent or about 48 percent approval among the group that voted in the last election. That’s a more realistic assessment. And attitudes towards the economy are surging, which is usually good news for whoever occupies the White House.

Third, the media echo chamber has, I think, made it more difficult for people to express their political views, especially to live interviewers. With the growing gender gap, I’m not sure most men are even telling their spouses or partners what their real views are on the president. In a recent Harvard Harris poll we did, only about 60 percent in the country now feel free enough to express their views to friends and family.

Consequently, it’s no surprise that polls done online show a consistently better picture for Trump than most live interviewer polling, and today reaching America through the phone is an increasingly difficult task compared to new methods available through the internet.

But another piece of this polling bubble is also created by the narrow questioning in many of the polls. Many of the hot-button issues and expressions Trump uses are rarely if ever polled compared to questions about Russian election interference. No major poll in five years had polled on the support for local law enforcement contacting immigration authorities when they arrest someone, for instance. While many polls have picked up the genuine sympathy Americans have for “Dreamers” or for those who work hard and pay taxes, none of the polls examined what they think should be done with undocumented aliens who are arrested for crimes, or the deep support out there for something like Kate’s law.

Trump campaigned on a unique set of issues that indicted bad trade deals for economic dislocation, supported the police over the Black Lives Matter movement, called for making NATO members pay their fair share, and deporting criminal undocumented aliens. He called for repeal and replacing ObamaCare, lower taxes, more immigration police and a border wall paid for by Mexico.

You will find plenty of polling on what a bad idea Americans think the wall is and on the “Muslim ban” (often without even mentioning security), but where is the polling on the rest of his themes and messages? On the power of “Buy American, Hire American”? On tax cuts to stimulate jobs?

In the end, Trump had a fairly powerful message that spoke to a lot of voters. He is now attempting to turn that message into policy. So far, the results have been mixed. The Ryan healthcare plan was neither fish nor fowl and didn’t immediately lower premiums, making ObamaCare look better. The executive order on immigration was a Steve Bannon-led disaster. But despite these two clear setbacks, we should not be too quick to dismiss and trivialize the overall power of the rest of his message.

That was the ultimate mistake of 2016 and the polling bubble: The election turned not on Hollywood Access or Huma Abadein’s laptop, it turned on serious issues too easily dismissed by polling focused on Trump’s temperament, conflict of interest, tweets and Russian conspiracies. And because none of the pollsters or analysts saw it that way, they concluded that Trump, the developer/entertainer, could not possibly win even if the polls had in fact tightened up.

So as we enter the second hundred days, Trump has not crossed the 50 percent mark to expand his base, but he is also not down at 40 percent. On key issues he has a lot of support, especially when it comes to America being taken advantage of by its allies and trading partners, failing to stand up to its red lines, and the need for change that drains the corruption and gridlock of Washington. Don’t let the polling bubble obscure the fact that the forces – pro and con – that produced the surprise upset last November are just as powerful today.


Mark Penn is managing partner of the Stagwell Group and polled for President Clinton for 6 years. He also co-directs the Harvard-Harris Poll.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags 100 days Donald Trump Hillary Clinton polls

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