Why Trump cannot win: Part Four – the great poll faults Skip to content

Why Trump cannot win: Part Four – the great poll faults

The final installment of a four-part series by Tom Lewis, journalist, editor, and author of multiple books. In this article, he looks at the polls, and why they are not capturing the reality of this race.

3 min read
(Caricature by DonkeyHotey)

In mid-May, 2024, the conventional wisdom — aka the narrative adopted by virtually every member of the chattering class — is that Joe Biden is an unusually unpopular president, is behind in the polls, and that therefore Donald Trump has, to quote an otherwise admirable MSNBC anchor, “a 50-50 chance to be the next president.” There are so many things just plain wrong with this picture that it’s hard to know where to start.

President Biden’s approval ratings are being described everywhere (in May 2024) as “historically bad,” for the past 18 months or so. People who throw around terms like “historically” really ought to read a little history. The approval ratings of every modern president — in the third year of their first term — have been virtually identical (Biden around 40%, Trump 40%, Obama 43%, Bush 44%, Clinton 42%, etc) . Why specify the year and term? Because in that time frame the president has demonstrated that he cannot solve every problem the world has, he has probably suffered a few defeats and made a few mistakes, and there is no nominated candidate presenting an alternate program. Asked whether they approve of him, people think of his record so far and then imagine a president who does everything they think he should do, and succeeds at every attempt. As President Biden often says, “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.”

Here’s what we all need to keep in mind as we are being besieged, every single day, with stories that begin, “According to a new poll out today….”

    • Polls do not predict. Anything. A poll is a snapshot, highly variable in quality, of conditions existing at the time of the poll. Just as a photo of a river tells you nothing whatsoever about whether that river might flood next week or next year, so a poll reveals nothing about the future. 
    • A poll is not an election. It is not held at the same time as an election, and anything intervening — a scandal, a medical event, a gaffe, or just the execution of a campaign, can change everything overnight. Moreover, voters make an effort to vote, they do so usually because they believe the election can contribute to making things better. There is no such expectation when responding to a pollster who has trapped you.
    • A poll is not a poll. In order to have any idea about the validity of a poll, one has to know the following things, none of which is usually provided by stories in the mainstream media:
      • Who commissioned it? Pollsters do it for money, and they like to keep their clients, so if they are working for a political campaign they are going to do what they can to please their client. There are many subtle ways to elicit the answers the client wants, and some pollsters do not even try to be subtle. 
      • Who did it? There are more national polling companies at work in the US than ever, because of the insatiable demand from the media, who can’t think of any other way to cover an election campaign. Polls done by the giants of the industry — Pew Research, Quinnipiac, Gallup etc. — can be taken seriously, but there are a lot of money-grubbers out there that should be ignored. 
      • What was the sample size? Less than a thousand? Ignore it.
      • Who was in the sample?
        • Adults. This is the easiest poll to do, the least expensive, and is the one used most very early in the cycle. It is also the least informative because it includes tons of people with no interest in or knowledge of the campaign.
        • Registered voters. An improvement, but a slight one. Whether a registered voter will in fact vote this time is unknowable.
        • Likely voters, selected based on the fact that they voted the last time or two. But that is no guarantee they will be similarly motivated this time.
      • Timing is everything. Hard as it is for us news- and politics-junkies to believe, we who pay daily attention to these things constitute just a tiny sliver of the population — just another lunatic fringe, so to speak. The vast majority of Americans are not aware of, let alone interested in, a presidential campaign until the election is imminent. Campaigners know that, and maximize their efforts late in the game. Pollsters know that, too, and save their best efforts for last.

For all these reasons and more, the current (May 2024) media narrative, that Biden is historically weak and behind and Trump has an equal shot at victory — has no foundation in reality. In reality, Trump has a tiny, diminished and shrinking base, is doing nothing that would enlarge it, and is headed, along with his party, to an historic electoral catastrophe.


Written by Tom Lewis, who is a veteran print and broadcast journalist and author of five previous books who for six years wrote the authoritative “Environmental Quality Index” for National Wildlife Magazine and World Almanac, and who was the executive editor of a 16-book Time-Life Books series on the earth sciences called Planet Earth. He is currently retired from being Artist in Residence at the Department of Mass Communication, Frostburg State University in Frostburg, Maryland. Cross-posted from his site, The Daily Impact.

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