Bright and early Monday morning, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to express his frustration with polling numbers on his policies. He specifically compared “any negative polling” to the CNN, ABC and NBC election polls and labeled them all “fake news.”
This tactic seems to be Trump’s modus operandi for dealing with anything that casts him in a negative light ― publicly call it “fake” and claim he knows better. He’s trying to manipulate the public into not believing the polling numbers that we know he’s rabidly consuming.
Unfortunately for Trump, that’s not how polling works. Polls, when done right, represent the views of millions of Americans ― with some room for error, of course, since they’re based on samples of a few hundred or a thousand people. The specific polls Trump called out are very high quality and were actually very close to the national election outcome.
The ABC News poll, conducted in partnership with the Washington Post, showed Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton up by 4 points in their final national poll, 47 percent to 43 percent. Clinton won the national popular vote, by a little more than 2 percentage points, 48 percent to 45.9 percent. The poll underestimated Clinton’s vote by 1 point and Trump’s vote by 2.9 points. That’s a pretty good performance, well within the poll’s margin of error.
The last NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll also had Clinton winning by 4 points. That poll showed higher third party and undecided vote proportions and had Clinton with only 44 percent and Trump at 40 percent. But the 4-point margin was within a reasonable range of the result. CNN’s final election poll was conducted nearly 2 weeks prior to the election on Oct. 20-23, and had Clinton up by 5 points, a bit farther from the actual result, but not outrageous for 2 weeks prior to the election.
Trump’s problem with these polls isn’t that they weren’t true representations of Americans’ opinions. It’s that they didn’t show him winning the popular vote ― which he didn’t win, another fact he has sought to discredit by claiming 3-5 million people illegally voted. Now he’s doing the same thing with polling about his policies.
Technically he’s correct that “people want border security and extreme vetting.” Some people do. Trump’s immigration policies are popular with a segment of Americans, but how many support the policy depends on how pollsters ask about the policy. Only one poll shows a majority of Americans approving of Trump’s travel ban policy, but in several polls a majority disapproves.
However, Trump isn’t just trying to claim majority support. He clearly seeks to discredit all negative opinions with comments like “any negative polls are fake news.” This is unusual and alarming behavior from a president.
Plenty of presidents probably haven’t liked their polling numbers before. President Barack Obama probably wasn’t thrilled that his health care law has been mostly viewed unfavorably since 2010. President George W. Bush couldn’t have been satisfied with his job approval ratings, which steadily declined throughout his second term.
But neither Obama nor Bush tried to discredit American opinion. Trump seems to think he can ignore anything that isn’t favorable to him, and that we should just believe his decisions are best for the country based on his own “accumulation of data.”
We shouldn’t believe that from Trump or from anyone else. As I wrote last week, if the data aren’t cited and you can’t see the source, that’s the first indication that you shouldn’t believe it’s real. The same standard applies to the president.
Trump is smart: He’s attacking institutions that have public trust issues, and he gets a double whammy by hitting media polling. But even if you dislike polls, the claim that “any negative” information is fake is a dangerous one. If he uses it for polls, he’s likely to use it for other facts as well. That’s a very authoritarian tactic.
Don’t let Trump get away with labeling anything he doesn’t like “fake.” Keep making your voice heard in polls and in every way possible.