All candidates care about their polling numbers, but few have been quite as vocally obsessed with the industry as Donald Trump.
During the primary, when surveys showed him ahead, “poll” and “polls” were among the most commonly used words on his Twitter feed, second only to “great.” When general election polls produced less-rosy results, the tweets gave way to loudly voiced skepticism.
“I don’t believe the polls anymore,” Trump said during a mid-October rally. Later in the month, he argued that oversampling, a common and previously uncontroversial polling technique, was being used to suppress votes by skewing the polls against him.
That rhetoric has made for an interesting year for pollsters. While there’s no clear consensus on whether the environment this year is significantly worse than in past elections, a number say they’ve faced blowback over their results.
Take Monmouth University. When its polling showed Trump leading the GOP primary field, the New York businessman praised the survey as “respected.” But when its polling institute’s results started showing Trump trailing in the general election, his supporters labeled Director Patrick Murray everything from “an enemy of the free world” to a “stupid guy” who “took money from crooked Hillary.” Michael Cohen, a lawyer for The Trump Organization, approvingly shared a post accusing the poll of corruption.
“There has been a concerted effort to de-legitimize a number of different types of institutions related to elections,” Murray told the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey. “Polling is an easy target because it’s not an exact science — and there’s times when it’s been off.”
Things reached a crescendo after a parody news site posted a fake memo purporting to show instructions for skewing the polls.
“Do you realize that post ... has led to threats of being ‘taken out and shot’?” Murray wrote on Twitter. “Would have been amusing if we didn’t have to take steps to protect our staff from threats.”
Another fake memo targeted the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling. Tom Jensen, the survey’s director ― and no stranger to Twitter trolling himself ― took the ruse a little more lightly, calling it “a commentary on the credulity of Trump supporters.” But Jensen also said he’d gotten his fair share of attacks during this election cycle.
“I think Trump and Trump world’s explicit attacking of polls has kind of taken it to another level,” he told The Huffington Post, including an unusually high number of people accusing him of incorrectly weighting his polls.
“I think basically this cycle, everyone’s become an expert,” Jensen said. “On the more sinister side of things, I had someone in the primary tell me I was a total virgin who should go drink bleach and no one would miss me, so I think the rhetoric that comes from the top with Trump has kind of made its way down to how some of his supporters interact with pollsters too.”
Other pollsters have faced angry responses both from Trump supporters and from backers of other candidates.
Jay DeSart, an associate professor at Utah Valley University, recounted the responses he got to a survey this summer that combined questions on the election with ones about anti-intellectualism.
“One told me that I was being a shill for Diebold [the voting machine maker] by crafting a survey that would allow us to fake the results of the election for the ‘republodemocrat party bankers.’ My survey was ‘manipulative’ and ‘intellectually lacking,’” DeSart said. “And all this was apparently because I did not include a Trump v. Sanders trial heat question … after Clinton had been declared the presumptive nominee.”
PRRI, a nonpartisan think tank on religion, said it had seen an uptick in angry emails and had to start blocking people on Twitter for the first time after it released polling that showed Trump behind in the presidential campaign.
HuffPost Pollster, which aggregates publicly available survey results, has received its own share of the blowback, ranging from Trump voters who didn’t believe he was behind to Hillary Clinton voters who thought she should have been ahead by a larger margin. Complaints also came from disgruntled supporters of third-party candidates who wanted to see them included in more surveys. (Sample email subject lines sent to our shared inbox: “Lies,” “complete bullshit,” “Fraudulent poll numbers,” “Serious Polling Deficiancies,” “cooking the books on polling,” “What the f***!”)
Don Levy, the director of the Siena Research Institute at Siena College, recalled getting more than two dozen phone calls in the days after conducting a survey of Pennsylvania this year.
“They weren’t all irate. Some of them were intelligent and inquisitive. But about half were I picked up the phone and somebody started yelling ‘F*** you this and f*** you that.’ I’ve gotten calls like that before. We get emails, of course, once in a while. You see posts once in a while, tweets, but it was the most concentrated I’d ever experienced.”
Several pollsters, including Levy, said things didn’t seem notably worse than in past years. Others said they hadn’t noticed any especially vitriolic reactions or reported that things had been generally milder than they were in 2012, when “unskewing” polls that had shown Mitt Romney behind became something of a cottage industry.
But Levy predicted that skepticism toward polls could last past Election Day, even if findings are largely borne out by the results.
“It should be a concern that we all have, that there is a level of sanctioned anger that has been generated,” Levy said. “We’ve seen it be directed at the press and the campaigns, and certainly our industry has been called biased, phony. ... Let’s say we’re right, depending on how a couple of close states go, that Clinton wins the Electoral College substantially. I think one of the things we’ll hear is that the polling was a contributor to that, and that we were biased.”