A new Washington Post-ABC News survey contains bleak news for President Donald Trump on nearly every front. Heading into the 2020 campaign, it shows his approval rating slipping significantly over the last month, in large part because people blame him for the possibility of an economic downturn.
Trump shot back in a characteristic manner: by attacking the Post in particular and mainstream media polling in general. But there are a couple of glaring problems with his response.
“ABC/Washington Post Poll was the worst and most inaccurate poll of any taken prior to the 2016 Election,” Trump tweeted on Tuesday. “When my lawyers protested, they took a 12 point down and brought it to almost even by Election Day. It was a Fake Poll by two very bad and dangerous media outlets. Sad!”
In a follow-up tweet, Trump opined that “[o]ne of the greatest and most powerful weapons used by the Fake and Corrupt News Media is the phony Polling Information they put out. Many of these polls are fixed, or worked in such a way that a certain candidate will look good or bad. Internal polling looks great, the best ever!”
Trump, of course, has a long history of attacking polls that don’t reflect well on him. But his specific claim about “inaccurate” 2016 polling is simply false, and there’s good reason to believe he’s also not telling the truth about his internal polling.
More broadly, Trump’s tweets on Tuesday suggest that instead of trying to have a sincere reckoning with his political shortcomings, he’s in denial about them. If his approval rating is sagging, that’s because the poll was rigged. If more than one poll indicates that, a conspiracy must be at play.
The latest Post-ABC poll, briefly explained
The Post-ABC regularly polls Trump’s approval rating, and in July it hit an all-time high of 44 percent. As ABC put it at the time, Trump’s approval was “[b]olstered by a strong economy.”
But there has been some bad economic news since then. Trump’s trade war with China is not only hurting China, but also countries like Germany that also do a lot of business with China, and in turn dragging down the world economy. US growth has slowed, and a briefly inverted yield curve sparked (perhaps unfounded) fears that a recession may be around the corner.
The state of the economy is clearly on Americans’ minds: The latest Post-ABC survey shows that Trump’s approval rating has slipped back down to 38 percent, with 56 percent disapproving. And as the Post writes, the slippage is largely attributable to declining confidence about Trump’s handling of the economy:
The Post-ABC poll caps off a bleak period of polling for Trump. Last month, for instance, a Fox News poll found Trump polling below 40 percent in head-to-head matchups with four current frontrunners for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. In that case as in this one, Trump responded by attacking the messenger.
Trump’s tweets on Tuesday took aim at the Post-ABC’s alleged “inaccurate” polling during the 2016 election. But as is the case with many of Trump’s gripes of this sort, his case is overstated.
The 2016 polls Trump loves to bash actually weren’t as inaccurate as he wants you to believe
Trump wants you to believe that the latest Post-ABC numbers can be discounted because its 2016 polling was inaccurate. There’s just one problem: He’s wrong.
The final Post-ABC tracking poll before the November 2016 election found that Hillary Clinton had the support of 47 percent of likely voters, compared to 43 percent for Trump. That’s not far off from Clinton’s ultimate margin of victory in the popular vote, which was 48 percent to 46 percent. In fact, Clinton’s edge in that final poll did “not reach statistical significance, given the poll’s 2.5 percentage-point margin in sampling error around each candidate’s support,” as the Post noted in its writeup at the time. And one factor working in Trump’s favor that the Post also noted was that he was ahead in a number of battleground states.
The Post didn’t respond to a request for comment about Trump’s accusation that they manipulated their 2016 polls after Trump’s “lawyers protested,” but a graph of their polling shows, predictably, that Clinton’s lead widened after the Access Hollywood tape was released in early October 2016, only to steadily narrow as the WikiLeaks dumps and FBI Director James Comey’s letter to Congress about the investigation of her emails rocked her campaign.
It was difficult to foresee that Trump would lose the popular vote while winning the Electoral College. But the fact remains that although the Post-ABC polling underrepresented Trump’s support by about 3 percentage points, it pegged Clinton’s support within a point, and correctly predicted the winner of the popular vote. The poll that Trump now bashes as “inaccurate” certainly left open the possibility that he might ultimately prevail.
In short, Trump is trying to rewrite history.
Trump is also probably wrong about his internal polls
After bashing the Post on Tuesday, Trump contrasted the purportedly erroneous Post-ABC poll with his own internal polling, which he says, “looks great, the best ever!”
But we learned earlier this summer that Trump’s poll denialism even extends to ones conducted by his campaign. In June, Trump campaign polling leaked to the media that showed him lagging behind Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden in key battleground states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Trump’s response was to stick his head in the sand.
According to the New York Times’ Annie Karni and Maggie Haberman, after he was briefed about the “devastating” polling, Trump told his aides to deny it and instead tout polls showing him doing better. In the days that followed, Trump touted a poll from his favorite pollster, Rasmussen, showing his approval rating at a relatively robust 50 percent.
Rasmussen, however, skews to the right, and according to CNN was the least accurate pollster out of any that released generic congressional ballot polls in the runup to November’s midterm elections. Since then, Trump has touted a poll from Zogby, a source arguably even less reputable than Rasmussen and one that regularly inflates his approval rating by about 10 points. Earlier this week, I detailed how Trump also seems to be resorting to simply making up polling data points in an attempt to inflate his popularity.
Trump’s poll denialism may succeed in delaying his day of reckoning, but it’s coming nonetheless. For now, the unexpected outcome of the 2016 election gives Trump a pretext to dismiss any mainstream polling he doesn’t like, but his rationale for doing so doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. And the notion that Fox News and his own campaign are manipulating polls to make them look bad for him is absurd.
Polling is not an exact science, but it does have predictive value, and despite what he’d have you believe, it’s simply not the case that all of them are rigged against Trump. And ultimately, with his reelection campaign about to begin in earnest, Trump is denying them at his own peril.
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