The Polls Don’t Lie

Of course, they don’t tell the truth either.

The New York Times/CBS poll came out last week. I discarded the rest of my electronic New York Times and called up the poll. What do these 1,252 potential voters have to tell us about how things are? [1] Particularly, what do they have to tell us about Democratic and Republican candidates and the current look of the general election in November?

Reading Polls

Maybe just a note about these polls would be in order. Polling is a science. The mathematics alone is way past my understanding and the people who study polls seem to agree about the math. Interpreting polls is not a science. At the most favorable, you can say it is an art but there are less inspiring things it can be called.

poll 1I’ll make two brief points here. The first is that these questions [Do you approve of the way Barack Obama is handling his job as President?] may seem simple-minded, but a good deal can be learned from the fact that they ask the same question in the same form year after year. [2] So in these polls, I can look at the responses to this question from from February 2—4, 2009 to this most recent one. Sometimes the fluctuation is the most interesting thing.

The second point is that I don’t read polls to see what they have to say. I have questions in mind and I read polls to find the answers to the questions I am asking. When I saw how low the “trust in Hillary” numbers were, I went back to see when they were higher. “Why are they so low RIGHT NOW?” is the question I was asking. The poll was not conducted to deal with that question, although it provies all the information.

OK. Now to the poll itself.

Bernie Sanders

First, this isn’t really a good time to be president. Most people (61%) feel that things in this country [3] are not going in the right direction, but rather that things have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track. It would be nice, if you were thinking of being the head of the executive branch of the federal government to think that your people had hope; to find that half or more thought that things were generally going in the right direction. To do that, you would have to go back to March and April 2003. It has been less that 50% percent ever since then.

Or, if things are not going in the right direction and you still wanted to be the president, it would be nice if there were things you could do to put things back on the right track. But probably there is nothing an executive can do.

In April 2015, I wrote an essay called “Hillary’s Last Chance to Prepare for 2020.” In it, I

imagined that Hillary might be elected in 2016, in part because she was not seen to be poll 6responsible for the poor showing of the economy. The economy is still going to be bad in 2020, according to my argument, and President Hillary is going to be swept away by the popular anger UNLESS she provides, by 2020, when she would be up for re-election, someone else for people to be angry at.

People are not going to say that things are going in the right direction when their own financial circumstances get worse and worse and particularly as inequality gets worse and worse. The president, no matter who it is, will not be able to change that trend so, I argued in April of last year, the only thing a president can affect is who gets blamed for it. So I argued that Hillary needed to start immediately because once she’s President in 2017, it’s going to be too late.

So I learned from the answers to Question 2 that things are headed in the wrong direction according to 61% of the people. I supplemented that by my own theories about why things are so tight economically and why they are going to continue to get worse and it left me wondering why anyone would want to be elected president this year.

That is especially true if you are a Republican candidate. The people in this survey think of the Republican party as “divided” (88% to 10%); they think the campaign is “negative” (58% to 10%); and they are “embarrassed” about the campaign (60% rather than “proud” (27%). I don’t think that looks good for whoever gets the Republican nomination, particularly if there is a fight at the convention in Cleveland and particularly if it gets ugly in public at the convention.

poll 4There is not that same circus atmosphere on the Democratic side, but the difficulties of a Democratic candidate are already plain—people don’t know Bernie and they don’t trust Hillary. The favorable opinion about Hillary—Is your opinion of Hillary Clinton favorable—peaked in 2008 and 2009 during and just after her run for the Democratic nomination. She was above 50% approval for five polls in a row: that’s from September of 2008 until February of 2013. Something happened—the Benghazi controversy, probably—which resulted in here approval rating plummeting from 57% to 26% in just a little over a month. She has been, with a single exception, in the 20s and 30’s ever since. She was at 31% in this most recent poll. “Not favorable” is now over 50%. [4]

I don’t trust Bernie Sanders’ numbers because the time has been so short and the numbers so volatile, but for what it is worth, 84% of the sample say he is “honest and trustworthy” and only 11% say he is not.

For Sanders, the Achilles heel is “realism.” Only 56% think Sanders is “realistic.” The question is: From what you’ve heard or read, generally, would you describe Bernie Sanders’s policy proposals as realistic or not realistic? And 38% say his proposals are not realistic. That compares to the 78% who say Hillary’s proposals are “realistic.”

So on the Democratic side, people don’t trust Hillary and they think Bernie is a dreamer. Now you might ask whether this “don’t trust Hillary” feeling is one of the great achievements of 30 or so years of Republican pot-banging. Of course it is. But the electoral question is not whether Hillary is trustworthy; it is whether people FEEL (I didn’t say THINK) she is trustworthy. She needs to show that she is—I have no idea what would do that—and Bernie needs to show that his policies could actually be enacted. I have no idea how he would do that either, but I think I would start by urging every potential voter to go see Michael Moore’s new movie, Where to Invade Next. (I posted a review of sorts on March 21.)

I began by saying that things were “volatile.”This morning, The Donald “revoked” his pledge to support whoever the Republican Convention chooses. Amazing!

[1] This number included 362 Republican primary voters and 388 Democratic primary voters.
[2] If you run across a question that says, “How is PRESIDENT OBAMA handling foreign policy?” you are reading a poll put out by the Democratic party. The Times/CBS polls are exactly the same, word for word, decade after decade.  And they don’t say “President Obama.”  Ever.
[3] I will put the actual language of the question in italics, as here.
[4] The “trustworthy” numbers—do you think Hillary Clinton is honest and trustworthy—are a little better: 56% say she is and 40% say she is not. All the Republican candidates are at (Cruz) or below 40%. Kasich is at 16%!


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. My wife, Bette, is the First Reader (FR) of the posts. I have arranged that partly because she helps me write better posts than I would otherwise and partly because I can hold her responsible for the mistakes that I would, otherwise, have to own up to myself.. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsey. I'm a dilettante.
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