Do Clinton's Supposedly Negative Poll Numbers Mean Anything?

by Neil H. Buchanan

If there is one narrative that has taken root during the long course of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, it is the idea that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are widely loathed.  It has become a staple not just of political commentaries but of late-night comedy to point to polls that seem to show that both candidates are historically unpopular.

But a factually true statement can be still be grossly misleading and damaging.  Lazily pointing to some poll numbers to attack both Clinton and Trump is apparently good sport.  Unfortunately, it also distorts the way that people think about the candidates.  Even worse, it allows voters to say, "Well, I don't want to make a choice, because they're both so bad.  Everybody thinks so."  It has thus become a self-reinforcing distortion.

Much of my discussion here will involve criticizing the use of public opinion polls, so let me first clear up a few possible misunderstandings.  Most importantly, I am not buying into the usual criticisms of polls as a general matter, for example, the claim that polling is inherently inaccurate.

The fact is that, as a matter of forecasting election results, polling has become impressively precise.  Although there are always unscientific (which usually means deliberately biased) polls that prove nothing, the last few elections have shown that careful analysis of independent polling can lead to accurate predictions.  Candidates who are behind in the polls disparage those polls, of course, but that means nothing.

Moreover, it is not true that polling cannot capture "soft" ideas.  For example, a relatively new branch of social science known as "happiness research" has made it possible to try to measure people's well-being in ways that stand up to replication and that can prove helpful to policymakers.

Properly done, therefore, public opinion polling can quite usefully improve our knowledge of the world.  Even so, it is still true that even the best pollsters ask questions that are ambiguous, and too many people (including the pollsters themselves) are willing to over-interpret the results.  A few examples will make the point.

Last month, I wrote a guest piece for a British publication called The World Financial Review (TWFR). (The column is, unfortunately, behind a paywall.)  There, I quoted from a Pew Research Center report from July -- "Campaign 2016: Strong Interest, Widespread Dissatisfaction."  Pew is one of the top polling organizations in the world, but it is not immune to analytical errors.

Summarizing a national survey of voters, Pew wrote that "large numbers of the supporters of both Trump and Clinton view their choice as more of a vote against the opposing candidate than an expression of support for their candidate."  This, according to the report, was "another sign of voter discontent."

But is it, really?  Is it not possible that at least some people are very happy with their candidate but simply dislike the other person more?  I happen to know that to be possible, because I am one of those people.

As the campaign has moved along, I have become ever more impressed with Hillary Clinton, to the point where I now view her as a potentially great president.  On the other hand, although I would not have thought it possible, my opinion of Trump is now lower than it was a week, a month, or a year ago.

Because Trump scares me so much, my honest answer to Pew's question -- "Are you voting more for your candidate or against the other candidate?" -- would have to be that I am voting against Trump.  Yet that response does not at all comport with the conclusion that Pew draws that both candidates are reviled.

Moreover, the pure hyper-partisanship of the current election all but guarantees that poll numbers are going to look more negative than in previous elections.  To find "high negatives," a pollster does not even have to do what Pew did.  All you have to do is contrast the number of people who dislike Clinton and Trump with the number of people who disliked Bush and Dukakis or McCain and Romney.  This is a new era.

Consider another example of a poorly worded question that can be badly misinterpreted.  Over the summer, The Guardian published "The Death of Neoliberalism and the Crisis in Western Politics."  Because I am a critic of neoliberalism, I suspected that this would be a pleasant read.

In some ways, it was indeed an insightful piece.  At its conclusion, however, the article cited an unspecified poll to support the claim that "[r]oughly two-thirds of Americans agree that 'we should not think so much in international terms but concentrate more on our own national problems.'"

But what does that really mean?  The author of The Guardian's piece presented it as proof that the xenophobia that Trump has tapped into is going to continue to express itself in "opposition to the hyper-globalisers."  Possibly, or possibly not.

A respondent to that poll could be saying that "we should not be getting involved in more foreign wars, given the problems with poverty here at home," even though she wants the U.S. to fight poverty abroad as well.  Another person might sincerely believe that we should close our borders and ignore the world entirely.  That poll's results do not prove what the author claims they prove, because two people with widely divergent views could give the same answer.

Similarly, the Washington Post published an article last month citing poll results showing that "[o]nly 21 percent of Latinos say the GOP cares about their community," whereas "70 percent say that Trump has made the Republican Party 'more hostile' to them."

How could thirty percent of Latinos not believe that Trump has made his party more hostile to them?  Perhaps they think that the Republicans could not be more hostile than they were before Trump came along, so that his arrival has done nothing to change their views of the Republican Party.  That would not mean that they have a benign view of Trump, but only that they already saw the Republican Party for what it had become.

Another poll, cited by a columnist in The New York Times last month, asked people to respond to the following statement: "It bothers me when I come in contact with immigrants who speak little or no English."

Could I honestly agree with that statement?  Yes.  It bothers me because it reminds me that I never learned another language, which I regret.  It bothers me because I would like to be able to communicate with everyone.  It bothers me because I worry that they will view my clumsy attempts to communicate with them as condescension or worse.

None of that would mean that I am uncomfortable with immigration, or that I am in favor of English-only laws, or any of the rest of the nativist line.  But if I were being completely honest, I would have to say that I agree with the statement in the poll.

And this is where things become especially interesting.  People can be quite savvy, and they often know what the "right" answer is to many poll questions.  Some Latino voters who hate Trump might know to say "yes" to the question of whether Trump has made Republicans more hostile to Latinos, because that is the way to register anti-Trump sentiment.

Similarly, someone in my position would be a fool to agree with the statement that coming into contact with non-English-speaking immigrants is uncomfortable.  Respondents frequently know how to register their approval or disapproval.

Thus, even if a Democrat is genuinely worried about the racism that has surfaced during Obama's presidency, she would be crazy to give an honest answer to a polling question that asks whether "the country has been moving in the right direction or the wrong direction since Obama took office."

When interpreting such polls, therefore, we really do not know how many people answer "naively honestly" or "strategically honestly" (much less dishonestly).  And the difference matters.

All of which brings us back to the meme that "both Clinton and Trump are historically unpopular."  As I noted above, my complaint is not with polling in general, but with bad questions and poor interpretations of responses.  Fortunately, just this week a helpful analysis was published by the poll-meisters at FiveThirtyEight.

Under the helpful title, "Clinton Voters Aren't Just Voting Against Trump," Harry Enten examines apples-to-apples polling from 1980 onward regarding voters attitudes about their candidate and against the other candidate.  Because this is a comparison over time, it is possible that any bias introduced by my concern above -- that being "more against" Candidate B can obscure the degree of affection for Candidate A -- might be relatively constant over time.

If so, Enten's analysis is especially interesting, because he notes that although "56 percent of Clinton’s voters ... affirmatively supporting her may not seem like a lot, ... it’s about average for a presidential candidate."  (Consider just how amazing it is that Clinton is hitting the historical averages, given how much the anti-Clinton narrative has taken hold even among Democrats who plan to vote for her.)

Moreover, Enten writes, "The most interesting thing about these numbers is how few of Trump’s supporters are his fans. No candidate since 1980 has had a lower percentage of voters say they plan to cast a vote for their candidate."

Again, that latter result could simply be a measure of just how much hatred there is out there for Hillary Clinton.  But viewed in historical context, these results do paint a rather different picture from the threadbare "two terrible choices" story line.  I am not saying that Enten's polls are better than other polls, but I am saying that his analysis is simply more careful and complete.

And remember, this is all in a media environment where voters have been told for months that they are supposed to hate both candidates.  That there is nonetheless so much positive support for Clinton has to be a good sign for her presidency.