Let’s browse a sampling of recent headlines: “Trump Ends the Year As the Most Unpopular President on Record.”; “Trump’s Unpopularity is Amazing”; “Trump’s Historic Unpopularity Will Define His Presidency”; “Trump Unpopular Worldwide”; and (my favorite, given the unrelenting drumbeat) “Let’s Start Taking Trump’s Unpopularity Seriously”. Sense a subtle trend?
If all one reads are news headlines, one could be forgiven for believing that the White House is under siege by never ending waves of irate voters, pitchforks waving boldly above a sea of anatomically correct pudenda hats. And those angry voters, knitted genitalia bobbing in a righteous wind, will assuredly swarm the voting booths in 2018 and sweep the Democrats to an historic victory, dooming the Trump presidency to the dustbin of history.
Or maybe not. Let’s look a little more closely at that history before we populate the dustbins.
At this point in time in their respective presidencies, Obama had benefited from press coverage that could most charitably be called ‘fawning’. The press reported negatively about Obama only 20% of the time. In contrast, Donald Trump has received unrelenting negative coverage a whopping 90% of the time. Given the vicious reportage, Trump should be more than three times as unpopular as his predecessor. Only… he isn’t.
Here’s a reality bite: Donald Trump is more popular than Barack Obama.
Yep. In the daily tracking poll for people likely to vote, approve vs disapprove, Obama at this week of his presidency was at 46 to 53. And Trump? He’s at 49 to 49.
For the math challenged among us, that means that, at this point in their respective presidencies, Obama was underwater with voters by 7 points, but Trump is dead even.
How then, to square the jarring disconnect?
It’s not much of a mystery. It all depends on whom you ask.
Or to be more precise: it all depends on who matters.
We live in a democracy. (Okay, we live in a representative republic, but let’s not split hairs.) That means that every citizen – unless you’re in California, where we include every Mexican citizen – has a right to register and vote. But only 80% of eligible citizens are registered to vote. Of those registered, 58% actually voted in the presidential election in 2016. In “off-year elections”, when there is no presidential race, that number plummets to only 40% of registered voters.
This is where the type of poll becomes critical. And really, the type of poll is all we need to know to explain both the disconnect and what will happen in the 2018 election.
There are three general polling populations: All Adults, Registered Voters, and Likely Voters. All Adults will include every person, citizen or no, living in the US and answering their phone. Registered Voters will include only those claiming they are registered to vote: a class that used to be far more influential in predicting elections before motor-voter laws signed up everyone with a pulse, and a group which routinely over-samples Democrats. The third group, Likely Voters, is quite different.
Likely Voters are the ones who, not to belabor the obvious, will vote. Likely Voters elect the president and the Congress. Likely Voters matter. The rest of those polled? I’m sure they matter to God and their moms. They don’t count for squat in an election.
Of all people living here, all those responding to a general All Adults poll, 93% are citizens. Of those citizens, 80% are registered, and 40% of those registered will be voting in 2018. In short? Less than 30% of the people responding to a general poll will have anything whatsoever to do with the 2018 election.
This far from an election, the only polling company which limits its inquiries to those who will be doing the voting is Rasmussen. And while the anti-Trump headliners will always report the Rasmussen poll as “the most favorable poll to Trump”, the proper response to that accusation is: absolutely true. Rasmussen is indeed the most favorable poll to Trump, and that bodes very well for 2018. When the ones who will vote are the ones who like a candidate, that’s a very good thing for the candidate.
Finally, as an amusing anecdote to show how tricky even the consideration of Likely Voters can be, let’s visit my home state of Florida for a moment.
Consider today’s Politico article positing that Florida Governor Rick Scott is running behind sitting Democrat Senator Bill Nelson in the 2018 Senate race. Politico begins by reporting a Registered Voter poll, which has the candidates tied. Okay… in that case, one would assume that a Likely Voter poll would favor the Republican Scott. Not so! Politico smugly points out that a Likely Voter poll has Nelson ahead by a large 6 point lead.
What went wrong here? The key is in this innocent little sentence: “If either poll is reconfigured to account for an average midterm turnout, Nelson’s lead evaporates.” One would assume that the very definition of a “likely voter” for an average midterm would be one likely to vote in the average midterm. So how can a poll, which never takes into account who is likely to vote, be considered a Likely Voter poll? It can’t.
The UNF poll of these “likely voters” didn’t consider which voters are historically likely to turn out, just which ones who said that they were going to vote… that is, most registered voters. A Registered Voter poll by any other name remains a Registered Voter poll. And it means diddly-squat.
So where does that leave us? It leaves us with the caveat that the press is going to mischaracterize every conceivable poll result between now and November 2018 to create self-fulfilling prophesy of a Democrat wave. They did it in 2016 and utterly failed to predict the Trump victory. They are going to do it again; hope springs eternal. And the overwhelming majority of those polls will, once again, mean nothing whatsoever when it comes to the election.
Keep an eye on Rasmussen. Anything else is for the rubes.