Point: Trump phenomenon built on opinion polling
Donald Trump has built his campaign using many tools: bravado, bigotry and barnstorming rhetoric. But right at the heart of his success has been public opinion polling.
Now, he will proudly — and loudly — tell you that he doesn’t rely on polls ... even getting into a very public spat with my own boss, pollster Frank Luntz, on the subject. Trump doesn’t survey on issues. He won’t hold focus groups. He has not poll-tested his strengths and weaknesses (as if, perish the thought, he even has weaknesses).
He wears the absence of political spinners and professional polling as a badge of honor to show his absolute authenticity: “I don’t have pollsters. I don’t want to waste money on pollsters. I don’t want to be unreal.”
But public opinion polling is central to his success, even if his campaign doesn’t actually do polling. Why? Because he uses outside polls to show not only his strength today but to prove his success tomorrow.
He cites them as exhibit A of his narrative that he’s a winner and the other candidates are “losers.” And no one likes supporting a loser, right? So according to Trump, “If the polls say I’ll win, then you, Joe Six Pack, should join me on the winning team.”
A sophisticated strategy this is not, but an effective one it surely is. He has led the field since July, except for the approximately four minutes in November when Ben Carson led.
So Trump’s position as frontrunner is fortified by the polls, but he’s not there because of them.
He’s the frontrunner because he has effectively channeled the simmering rage and resentment of the 2016 electorate. From corrupt politicians in Washington, to being “ripped off” by China, to America being overrun by those without legal permisson, he’s tapped into a deep-seated fear and frustration that the American dream is dead … and only you-know-who can “Make America Great Again.”
Trump didn’t need an opinion poll to tell him voters are so angry. He could have seen it in virtually any survey.
And that’s precisely why public opinion polls are so vital to American politics: Properly constructed and conducted, polls are the most effective means of gauging what the American people think ... what they believe ... and what they want from their representatives.
Polls educate and inform, enlighten and instruct on what citizens truly believe should be the policies and priorities pursued in Washington.
But remember this: Surveys are navigational tools for campaigns and candidates — they cannot tell you what to think or do. For instance:
Do voters support or oppose sending ground troops to fight ISIS? Surveys show that more than half support, but only a leader can judge whether it’s the right thing to do.
What do citizens want most above all else? To make government “efficient, effective and accountable” ... but it takes a statesman to figure out how to put those principles into practice.
What kind of tax code do they want? “Fair and consistent,” “simple and straight-forward” ... but it’s the job of a representative to translate that into meaningful policy.
George Gallup, the founder of modern-day polling, put it best when he said, “When a president or any other leader pays attention to poll results, he is, in effect, paying attention to the views of the people.”
In so many ways — whether it be our version of the Great Wall, or the “total shutdown” on Muslims — Donald Trump is turning the laws of American politics upside down. And his flat earth approach to modern campaigning, voter targeting, message-testing just might work.
But for the other mere mortal candidates who lack Trump’s clairvoyance, public opinion polling gives them a better understanding of the American people — and gives the people the strong voice they deserve.
David Merritt has advised three Republican presidential campaigns and is currently managing director at Luntz Global Partners. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.