Polls and Mass Perception: Trump vs. Hillary

One of the critical illnesses caused by generations of compulsory schooling and progressive propaganda, with their relativism and their socialization of thought, is the decay of nature's intellectual immune system, common sense.  A debilitating symptom of this disease is our modern obsession with, and deference to, political polls; or more precisely the ease with which poll data may be used by the media and the political class to manipulate mass perceptions and behavior.

During the evening hours of January 9, The Drudge Report ran this banner headline:

The linked story, from U.S. News & World Report, is headlined, "Trump Could Win It All."  This article, from January 8 -- more than twenty-four hours old at the time, but somehow worthy of top headline news status on Drudge -- describes a survey by Washington-based Mercury Analytics, gauging voters' responses to an online questionnaire and a Trump ad.  The survey's headline-worthy discovery?

Nearly 20 percent of likely Democratic voters say they'd cross sides and vote for Trump, while a small number, or 14 percent, of Republicans claim they'd vote for Clinton.

First of all, it seems to me that the big news here is not the headline about Trump, but rather the absurd finding that 14 percent of Republicans ("a small number"?) claimed they would vote for Clinton.  What kind of survey result is this?  If this isn't a textbook example of how polls skew perceptions and distort genuine political dialogue, I don't know what is.  Other than Donald Trump himself, how many self-identified Republicans do you know who have ever supported a Hillary Clinton campaign?  An honest observer should probably just dismiss the survey's "20 percent of likely Democratic voters" for Trump as an aberration, in light of the obvious aberration of that 14 percent of "likely Republican voters" supporting Hillary.

But that weirdness aside, the real deception here is the way the numbers are being used, in both the U.S. News article and on Drudge, to foster the illusion, which seems to be increasingly prevalent among Trump supporters, that Trump is the only GOP candidate who can steal votes from Hillary, and would therefore have the best chance of victory in the general election.  Leaving aside the little problem that polls are at best merely projections of things that haven't happened in conditions that do not yet exist, let us take a deeper look into these numbers, such as they are, and compare their reality to the journalistic spin. 

The Mercury Analytics survey shows that Trump could get a significant Democrat crossover vote, which, as the article indicates, means Hillary's victory over Trump "wouldn't be a cakewalk."  This is the kind of reporting that gets Trump supporters dreaming.  Then they start pulling out anecdotes about "this Democrat I know at work who swears he'd vote for Trump, but not for any other Republican."  Or, reading the distorting, misleading headlines through rose-colored glasses, they come away with a sense that the polls show Trump defeating Hillary in a romp.

What does this survey -- not the spin, but the numerical result -- really show?  It shows that in a head-to-head match-up, Hillary and Trump are running neck and neck right now, at a moment when Trump, possibly the most famous public figure to run for President since Thomas Jefferson, is getting non-stop attention for his popular stance on a hot-button issue (immigration), while Hillary, possibly the most divisive figure ever to run for President, is getting non-stop attention for an investigation into criminal activity.  Furthermore, it claims to show that nearly 20 percent of "likely Democratic voters" are prepared to vote for Trump over Hillary -- but that even with one-fifth of Democrats (supposedly) voting for him, he could still lose.  What is an unspun observer to make of that result?

While we're in the swampy reeds of poll data, we might as well keep foraging for just a moment.  For while the click-baiting news outlets and over-zealous Trump supporters love to focus selectively on Trump's numbers and gush about how "he may be leading Hillary now" -- in other words, he may be trailing Hillary now -- they rarely if ever take the time to notice, or at least to highlight, how Trump's head-to-head performance against Clinton compares to those of his main GOP rivals.  Let's take a moment to do that, shall we?

A quick perusal of the latest national polling on this subject, collected on Real Clear Politics, paints a picture quite out of step with the Trump media frenzy.  A recent comprehensive national poll, conducted by Fox News during the same week as the Mercury Analytics survey, shows Trump leading the GOP primary race at 35 percent, ahead of Cruz (20%) and Rubio (13%).  The same poll also conducted head-to-head match-ups between Hillary and several Republican nominees.  Their result was similar to Mercury's regarding a Trump-Clinton election, although without the implausibly exaggerated number of crossover voters (on either side): It shows Trump ahead 47-44, with a healthy 9 percent of Democrats supporting Trump -- and 8 percent of Republicans supporting Hillary, a crossover voter differential of just one point in favor of Trump.

Interestingly, the Fox poll also shows that in the same match-up with Hillary, Cruz wins 50-43, with 11 percent of Democrats crossing over, compared to only 6 percent of Republicans choosing Hillary.  Meanwhile, Rubio beats Clinton by the biggest margin of all, 50-41, and has the biggest advantage in crossover voters, 12-5. 

So for all the talk from Trump supporters, including the genuinely conservative ones, about their man representing the best chance to earn Democrat votes or defeat Hillary, the actual numbers show that Cruz and Rubio -- nowhere near as well-known to the general voting public as reality TV icon and long-time liberal Trump -- are substantially ahead of Trump on both counts.

And these results are consistent with the results of two late-December polls, one by CNN and the other by Quinnipiac University.  The Quinnipiac poll also conducted head-to-head match-ups between the GOP candidates and Bernie Sanders, a fanciful notion that is beginning to look more plausible by the day.  The results show Cruz and Rubio narrowly defeating the Vermont socialist, but Trump losing to him badly, 51-38.

Should such results matter?  Should they change people's allegiances in the primary?  Certainly they should not.  As I have argued in detail before, polls shouldn’t matter at all.  But unfortunately they do.  They are used by campaigns and media outlets to encourage groupthink and mass reaction, undermining a representative republic with the collectivizing propaganda of "momentum," "leading," "faltering," and "electability" -- everything elections in a free society should never be about, certainly not before a single primary vote has been cast.

In this case, the "20% Would Jump to Trump!" and "Trump Could Win It All" hyperbole is an object lesson in the real danger of polls, which lies not so much in the resulting numbers themselves, but in the ease with which those numbers may be used to lend an aura of scientific verifiability to politically-loaded poppycock. 

Poll results are raw data derived from partial and imperfectible measuring conditions, just as, by analogy, global surface temperatures are raw data derived from imperfectible measuring conditions.  Poll-reporting, meanwhile, is to genuine politics what global warming predictions are to genuine science: the selective viewing of imprecisely-collected data through an interpretive model pre-set to produce the desired meaning, and then passed off as verifiable fact. 

In this case, the "Wow, look at this!" headlines are calibrated to sway Republican voters towards Trump by creating the impression of a uniquely broad support base for one GOP candidate above all others.  Oddly enough, this trope displays shades of the old Romney hype of 2012, or the McCain hype of 2008.  Defending "moderate" Republican pragmatists with weak records on key conservative issues against more conservative candidates, on the grounds of their supposed "electability" and Democrat-appeal, has long been standard fare during GOP primary seasons. 

Such fare, however, used to be anathema to many of the people now rallying behind Trump, yet another "moderate" Republican pragmatist, though one distinguished from the 2008 and 2012 models -- both of whom he strongly endorsed, by the way -- mainly by being, until recently, a self-identified Democrat; a big donor to past campaigns of Hillary Clinton, Harry Reid, Rahm Emanuel, Charlie Rangel, and Chuck Schumer; a public advocate, until quite recently, of abortion, socialized medicine, and a ban on "assault weapons"; a man who not only supported the 2008 bailout, but even expressed sympathy with the idea of responding to an economic crisis by nationalizing the banks; a (then 62-year old) semi-Republican who not only failed to see what Barack Obama was in 2008 -- did you? -- but even praised the job he was doing months into his presidency; and the man who, after the 2012 election, said Republican objections to amnesty, including even Mitt Romney's mild plan of "self-deportation" for illegal immigrants, were "mean-spirited," whereas the Democrat position on illegal immigrants was "kind."

(Trump's well-documented malleability and opportunism on issues, his past willingness to support establishment causes and candidates, and his evident lack of stable, core principles to guide his politics, probably explain why, as Roger Kimball points out, the GOP elite seem to be slowly warming to his candidacy.  With Jeb Bush hopeless and Rubio looking doubtful, Trump becomes their last hope, so the theory goes, to stop the candidate they fear and despise most, Cruz.)

Polls should have no more influence on political campaigns than they were originally intended to have in their earliest days, namely as advertising ploys to sell newspapers during election seasons.  Unfortunately, against all common sense, they have become the post-rational world's chief pseudoscientific tool of political manipulation.  Modernity has succumbed to the perceptual illusion that candidates' campaigns are like physical objects hurtling through space, subject to laws of momentum and inertia, rather than acts of moral persuasion entirely at the mercy of the reasoned choices and free will of private individuals on voting day.  As long as this illusion persists, it will be necessary for those who believe in enlightened, rational citizenship to trudge through the poll-reporting swamp this way occasionally, in search of a truthful understanding of "what the polls show," contrary to what biased or selective reportage may be using them to insinuate. 

From the point of view of one who trusts his own mind and has enough critical detachment to see through hype -- even hype that supports his own preferences -- what the polls actually show is usually nothing that ought to be of more than trifling significance to a responsible citizen.  Sadly, however, in today's climate of mass psychological manipulation, polls have become the most significant trifles this side of the latest "scientific" hype about anthropogenic global warming.

I have already seen many Trump supporters citing that Mercury Analytics survey around the internet.  Yes, the polls show that "Trump Could Win It All."  They also show that Cruz and Rubio could win it all, and perhaps more easily than Trump -- but apparently no one thought that was worth splashing across the top of a page.  Does this mean Trump supporters should switch their allegiance?  Of course not; it merely means they ought to stop falling for, or worse yet reproducing, the methods of psychological warfare that have helped to distort and undermine one of the essential mechanisms of self-government.

Addendum: After writing this article, Reuters released a new poll that perfectly reinforces my case about mass manipulation.  The headlines accompanying this poll highlighted Jeb Bush's surprising rise to third place overall at 10.6 percent, only four points behind Ted Cruz.  The establishment will now make hay about their man's "comeback," while Trump supporters will say, "See?  This is why we have to unite behind Trump." 

This was a rolling poll conducted over several days, which, if you examine the Reuters graph carefully, shows that Bush was well below 10 percent, and behind Carson, every day from January 5 to January 11, but then suddenly, on the last day of polling, January 12, jumped up dramatically, while Carson dropped dramatically.  This anomalous day is then reported as the "result" of the poll, rather than a strange outlier, distorting the perceptions of those susceptible to polling.  Dig a little further, and you will see that that final strange day, when Bush suddenly "passed" Carson – the establishment's "hockey stick" moment -- was the day with by far the fewest respondents (only 520), hence increasing the margin of error.  You will also notice that the reported result, showing Bush suddenly in third place, is filtered to include only self-identified Republican respondents.  Add the Independents into the filter, and you'll see that even on the anomalous January 12, Bush is at 8 percent, with Carson ahead at 9 percent.  (Every other day from January 5 to 11, with larger numbers of respondents, the gap between Carson and Bush was much wider.) 

Further, I note that the percentage of respondents identified as "Very Conservative" or "Moderately Conservative" is consistently between 79.5 and 80.5 percent of the total Republican respondents every day of the poll -- until January 12, when conservatives represent only 76.5, whereas Republicans who only "Lean Conservative" surpass 20 percent (20.8) of respondents on only that same magic day.

But none of that matters in the age of mass media voodoo.  Here's Drudge on the evening of January 13:

Get that?  The juxtaposition of headlines -- and in modern media, the headline is the story for most people -- delivers a none too subtle message: The establishment is rising; Cruz is now part of the establishment; hence Trump is the only legitimate anti-establishment candidate.

Here are the filters I suggest you use in reading political polls and the reporting thereon: an independent mind, common sense, a healthy skepticism about all reporting of political "trends," and your own conscience.  Or to put it more simply, I recall my old uncle John, a gruff-talking miner of Romanian descent living in a town full of semi-friendly ethnic rivalry.  He wore a cap with earflaps, which when pulled down revealed the description "Ukrainian BS Protector."  (I censored that a little.)  Pull down your Poll-Reporter BS Protectors before you lose your republic to the witch doctors of mass psychology.