The biggest “fake news” story of the last few years was that Donald TrumpDonald TrumpOhio Republican who voted to impeach Trump says he won't seek reelection Youngkin breaks with Trump on whether Democrats will cheat in the Virginia governor's race Trump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race MORE had almost no chance of being elected president. The entire pundit-polling-news establishment (including myself) was wrong, and the expectation was that these institutions would recalibrate their coverage to reflect a true picture of the country. They made an enormous miscalculation and they would, of course, make changes.
Almost two years later, very little has changed in polling and analysis at major institutions and news media. If anything, the polling has drifted even further from reality when you look at the questions being asked and, more importantly, the questions not being asked. You don’t need polls to see the America you live in. You need polls to understand the part of America you don’t know, don’t see, and don’t understand.
This disconnect could be happening all over again. Take a look, for example, at the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll for July. It’s very professional and a generally accurate poll. Look at what it found this month: Trump’s approval rating edged up 1 point and his “strong approval” went up 3 points. His personal image improved several points. The congressional horserace closed 4 points in the direction of Republicans.
Yet, the rest of the poll documents how people want more immigration, want to continue the Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE investigation, see tariffs as increasing prices for consumers and, of course, that Trump was too friendly to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The headlines on NBC screamed negative clickbait, while the poll shows Trump and the Republicans advancing. The more intense support for Trump was attributed by one of the pollsters to Trump’s attacks on the press.
Notice a disconnect between the polls and the people? The questions focus on the anti-Trump storyline as though the point of the questions is to prove the validity of that coverage. Except for a single query about Trump’s performance on the economy, the rest of the questions are framed in ways that would lead any reader to believe everything the president does is wrong and opposed by the public. Some of it is. But not to the extent depicted. That’s the danger in polls that miss the full story.
Look at the questions on immigration. NBC asked if people think immigration helps or hurts the country and found that 56 percent think immigration is helpful. It also asked people to rate Trump in his “treatment of immigrants and their families” — a question I have never seen before — to capitalize on the separation of children, which we already know was overwhelming disapproved by 88 percent in a Harvard CAPS/Harris poll.
But the questions ignore the heart of the issue: The battle is not over immigration per se but over illegal immigration. The public is quite sour on illegal immigration. Yet, you rarely if ever see a fair question on sanctuary city policies, which 84 percent oppose in the last Harvard CAPS/Harris poll. Or on chain migration or on immigration lotteries.
The real picture on immigration, especially in those areas of the country that have experienced lost jobs, is that many people believe illegal immigration reduced their wages. Despite compassion for those who are already here, most voters have low tolerance for continued illegal immigration, and most believe even legal immigration should be limited below current levels. Yet, none of those key points that depict two sides of this very emotional issue comes through in the questions asked.
Next, let’s look at the questions on tariffs. They find that most people don’t like tariffs and think they raise prices more than they help workers. But while pointing out that the prices people pay could be higher, the questions gloss over potential concentrated benefits to people in the most distressed areas of the country who have lost jobs in the last decade while coastal areas boomed. Nor do they ask if people think the tariffs are a good idea if used as a bargaining chip for better trade deals.
Rather than criticism of the press fueling the rise in the president’s base, it could be that his economic policies are targeted toward helping people in “old economy” states, as Trump promised in his campaign. Those people are his base, and their intense support grew last month. It’s certainly a more plausible theory than the one advanced.
Finally, the questions on Russia echo the idea that Trump’s actions were inappropriate and weak in Helsinki, and most people do believe they were. But the questions didn’t ask whether the president’s actions were “treasonous,” as former CIA director John BrennanJohn Owen BrennanStill in the game: Will Durham's report throw a slow curveball at key political players? UFOs are an intriguing science problem; Congress must act accordingly How transparency on UFOs can unite a deeply divided nation MORE said, nor do they ask whether people thought having better relations with Russia made sense as a way to push back against Iran and China. Consistently, the questions leave out the other side of the story or the extreme rhetoric that would be rejected, and focus on a few trodden talking points.
Maybe there is a blue wave coming. Or maybe it’s just another mirage. I tend to think there is blue edge. But with polling as one-sided as most of the polling in the mainstream media today, no one can know for sure. When the president takes an absolute pounding from Democrats, the media and even some anti-Russia, never-Trump Republicans, yet is still standing steady in the polls, it’s a stunning result.
It’s like Luke Skywalker in the last “Star Wars” film when they pound him with all their weapons. (Or, if you are on the other side, it’s like when the resistance throws everything at the Death Star and it remains unscathed.) When events like that happen, you need to reexamine your assumptions about what’s going on. These one-sided polls with slanted issue questions could once again easily miss the impact of 4 percent growth combined with more muscular trade and immigration policies. Unless the polls really reflect all the sides of the national debate on the issues before us, they will never reflect the nation they are supposed to capture.
Mark Penn is a managing partner of the Stagwell Group, a private equity firm specializing in marketing services companies, as well as chairman of the Harris Poll and author of “Microtrends Squared.” He served as pollster and adviser to President Clinton from 1995 to 2000, including during Clinton’s impeachment. You can follow him on Twitter @Mark_Penn.