When it comes to polls, one big theme has emerged in the wake of the big miss in 2016. It’s that the national polls were actually correct because Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote. It’s just that pesky little detail that Trump came out ahead in the vote that matters: the electoral count. What’s the takeaway as we dive into the heart of 2020? We get a reality check from pollster Scott Rasmussen.
President Trump reached the highest popularity marks of his presidency smack dab in the middle of his Senate impeachment trial, proving that both polls and public opinion can be unpredictable things.
That’s something polling expert Scott Rasmussen has known for a long time as the 2016 election drove home.
Scott Rasmussen: What was happening was the data was showing the race was close, but pundits, people talking about the race, political professionals were saying, "There's no way Donald Trump can win." I actually sat in the green room at Fox on the morning of the election, and people were saying, "Well, the polls show Hillary up by three. There's a margin of error, so she's going to win by six." And one person said, "Oh, no, it's going to be even bigger than that. The polls are off. She's going to approach double digits." I mean, there was this mindset. It was not from the data. It was from the eyes of the people who were looking at the data.
Sharyl: When a news organization or company commissions a poll, do they get to decide what questions are asked and what the headline is? Because sometimes the headline they pick, which was usually that Trump was doing poorly in some area, if you dug in, there were really signals that showed the opposite in some instances but were not headlined.
Scott Rasmussen: Right. So obviously the the organization paying for the poll can use it however they want. They can select the questions, they can interpret it as they want. Sometimes there's a really funny dynamic where the president's job approval will go up, and yet on every question that the company asked, it shows that people disagree with the president. Well, what that tells you is they're asking the wrong questions.
Sharyl: It seems like the polls are all thrown out there, and when there's difference among polls, people decide to dismiss the polls or actually disparage polls if they don't have the findings they like.
Scott Rasmussen: Look, people like things that they agree with, so if you find one poll out of a hundred that says your candidate is going to win, you're going to say, "This is the greatest poll of all time." And if you find one poll out of a hundred or if you find 99 out of a hundred that disagree, you're going to say they're all wrong. That is part of the human nature. But it's not just polls, any information we treat that way, and it's one of the reasons that we live in these bubbles. We're not willing to accept other information.
Sharyl: I just thought it was interesting looking back, remember Hillary Clinton went from measuring the drapes in the Oval Office to canceling or dialing back on her celebration plans right before the election, and yet Donald Trump, talking about internal polling, Donald Trump really seemed caught by surprise when he won. He seemed resigned to the fact or that he thought he was going to lose. What does that tell you about their respective internal polling and what it might've been showing?
Scott Rasmussen: I think, first off, it shows you that this idea of precision is misleading. It also shows that even campaigns, maybe especially campaigns, are subject to being swept away by the conventional wisdom. The Trump campaign certainly was. And I think these campaigns, as they watched the process, they had a sense that it might be a little closer than the public was being led to believe, but nobody on the campaign side really was prepared for the idea that this was going to be the upset of the century.
Sharyl: And advice going into this election, if people are asking you, "What should I believe and what should I do?”
Scott Rasmussen: The first thing is, if a poll disagrees with what you want to see or what you think is happening, don't dismiss it as fake news. It is really important for people to look at polling data and see what they can learn from it. You take polls collectively to see where the averages are heading, and then you apply a little bit of skeptical assessment to all of it.
A Recent NPR poll says voters think the number one threat to our elections, by far, is misinformation, beating out foreign interference, fraud and suppression.