The last election cycle saw more discussion about polling than any in recent memory. Donald Trump would insist that polls were untrustworthy, then appreciate them if they viewed him favorably. Democrats looked at them and breathed a sigh of relief as it looked like they were gaining momentum, with an election that seemed to be over before November. When he won, many seemed to be blindsided, while his voters found themselves aligning with poll results they had demonized weeks ago, saying we would have seen this coming if we had paid attention to the polls. Unfortunately, the polls didn’t tell a clear story in the last election and they continue not to.
The debate over polling accuracy is a diverse one. It ranges from distrust of particular pollsters to questions over methodology, such as phone polls that only use landlines. However, the science behind polling is sound and they can show an accurate view of opinion. The problem most pervasive in polling isn’t the way they’re conducted, the way margins of error are calculated, or sample size- it’s the public. It’s become difficult to look at groups of polls and find any sort of harmony in what people want. At this point analysis almost becomes moot, as we’re left looking at responses from a public whose sole consistency is the inconsistency with which they present themselves.
Recently, a Gallup poll found that 62% of Americans say that Trump keeps his promises. 59% thought he was a strong and decisive leader, and 53% believe that he can bring about the change this country needs (what change we need is up for debate, but let’s go along with this for now). Compare this to another Gallup poll two days prior on Trump’s Job Approval where he was left with a dismal 41%. What this means is that while only 41% of people approve of how he’s doing as POTUS, 59% still think he’s a strong leader and more than half think he can bring about the change this country needs. To quote the professor from whom I learned about polling, there seems to be a “slip between the cup and the lip” when it comes to analyzing what these people are saying. For less than half to approve of him while more than half see him as a strong leader seems highly unlikely, if not statistically impossible. Further mud in the water is stirred up when polls from Public Policy Polling show that 46% of the public is in favor of impeaching Trump, with 46% opposing it. What this leaves us with is a president where less than half the people approve, more than half think he’s a strong and decisive leader, and nearly half want to impeach him.
Until the public can learn who best represents them and their needs on a policy basis, they will continue to respond to polls in an erratic manner and will continue to vote against their interests...
If this shows a confused electorate, it gets deeper. Public Policy Polling shows a 51/23 margin of Trump voters saying that the Bowling Green Massacre (which never happened) demonstrates why Trump’s immigration policy is needed. Pew Research Center’s survey on who will gain influence by Trump being in office shows that while 46% of Americans wanted to “drain the swamp”, 64% of respondents believe that wealthy people will gain influence. While his victory is blamed on focusing on people who felt left behind by politicians, such as the working classes and white males, the same poll shows that only 27% of respondents thought that people like themselves would wield greater influence. 55% believe the poor will lose influence. If 46% of voters believed he would help them, but 27% think they won’t be influential in decisions, how does this pan out? What are voters telling us?
In short, they’re telling us they don’t know what they want or who can provide it to them. This is frustrating for anyone trying to shape policy or figure out the needs of voters. Just like the inconsistency of Sanders voters going to Trump when Clinton got the nomination, their answers about how they feel tell us little about their priorities. The public wants a socialist from Vermont that reminds them of their grandfather, but they also want a rich, tasteless Republican who thinks it’s alright to sexually assault women. They think Trump will help them, but they don’t. He’s not doing well at his job, but he’s a strong leader. This leads to the issue of voter awareness and education; people want things like affordable healthcare, but vote for someone without any policy reflecting a similar priority. Until the public can learn who best represents them and their needs on a policy basis, they will continue to respond to polls in an erratic manner and will continue to vote against their interests, believing that they can somehow get good policy out of a candidate they don’t trust or approve of.