On the morning of July 25, Americans woke up to the news that Donald Trump, fresh off the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, was beating Hillary Clinton in a CNN poll, 44% to 39%. By the time you read this article, this statistic will have likely changed. Perhaps you’re reading this article in October, frantically checking the latest projections. Perhaps you are reading it years from now, surprised that your internet connection still works under Trump’s martial law—or alternatively, you may be reading it from the comfort of your home, shuddering and saying “Remember when we thought he could win?”
Polls are not forecasts of the future. They are snapshots of the moment, reflecting current events and the emotional reaction of respondents at that time. We are living in an America hungry for quantitative assurance but reluctant to look at the unquantifiable sentiments that underlie this election—fear, misogyny, bigotry, and pain, among others. It is easier to declare what is coming than to reflect on how we got here.
In a fast-paced news cycle, amid a fast-changing election, polls taken months in advance are practically useless as predictors. Trump’s new convention persona—the self-declared candidate of “law and order” —was built specifically to capitalize on the fear stoked by a bloody few weeks that have included police killings, terrorist attacks, and tragedies abroad. Candidates change with the times, and the times change fast. Polls reflect the constant makeovers of candidates as well as the current events that prompt these changes.
Of course, the national obsession with polls is not new: Nate Silver, a statistics wonk, became a pop icon after predicting president Barack Obama’s 2008 victory. But this national hunger for constantly updating percentages and electoral maps, steady throughout the election, is a reflection of the extreme anxiety Americans feel about the future. If we can predict it, we can prepare.
Despite their unreliability, polls do have meaning—particularly in an election dominated by Trump, a candidate whose platform rests on pulling fringe bigotry to the center and marketing extremism as mainstream. For months, pundits have proclaimed that Trump will “pivot” away from extremism, perhaps after garnering the nomination, or maybe waiting until he actually makes it to the White House. It is clear now that this is simply not true. Trump will never pivot, but he will use the media to try to pivot the country closer and closer towards his own worldview.
Trump’s Twitter account is mocked for its narcissism, as he proudly posts the results of every poll that declares him in the lead (disregarding, of course, the ones that do not). As Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have dutifully tweeted out policy prescriptions, Trump has spent the election season talking about Trump, bragging about his dominance in a particular primary and his ratings on cable TV. Most recently, Trump released an online video documenting exactly how much applause—24 minutes—he received at the GOP convention, a post widely derided as self-involved and clueless.
Those who mock Trump are missing the point, however. The applause video was meant not only to glorify Trump (always a key Trump goal), but to signal to Americans that it’s acceptable, even laudable, to celebrate his opinions. It is okay, the video implies, to openly applaud a candidate who calls Mexicans rapists, posts anti-Semitic memes, praises authoritarian leaders, wants to round up Muslims, and has created a political climate in which white supremacist David Duke feels comfortable enough to run for the US Senate. It is normal, the video implies, because others are clapping with you. Selective use of data and polls help Trump prove his mainstream appeal. Trump may be best known for his ability to stir populist emotion, but polls and statistics are how he markets his fantasies as fact.
Polls also provide fodder for a financially flailing media, inspiring facile debates on the long-term meaning of short-held opinions. CNN—which recently hired Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski—has been slow to attack such a lucrative source of material. While the network has never shied away from calling individuals racists, quote marks have been applied around the term when referring to Trump. Its poll results have followed a similar pattern. A CNN poll on candidate favorability showing Trump was viewed more unfavorably than the less-than-beloved Clinton was tweeted out on July 26 with the headline: “Poll: Hillary Clinton’s image is at its lowest level in 24 years, Trump also bad.”
As Mark Twain remarked, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Trump is a master of all three categories. From the outset of his campaign, his greatest obstacle has been making the notion of a President Trump seem plausible. His rhetoric and policies, both vicious and ignorant, would not sway anyone who values logics and facts. But polls might. By playing off our insatiable desire for data snapshots, Trump has bolstered his mainstream appeal even as he taps into America’s collective sense of fear and betrayal. And he’s got the data to “prove it.”
Election polls won’t predict election results, but coverage of them, and the use of them by politicians, may be shifting voter perceptions of what is normal and tolerable—and popular. There is strength in numbers, especially if you would like to voice bigoted (or, as Trump likes to say, un-politically correct) opinions. America is a diverse nation, and Trump has a large base of genuine support. But part of the way he gains that support is by indicating it is okay for people to publicly join him, no matter how ugly or intolerant his ideas might be. Trump’s use of polls is not merely the pride of a showman or the braggadocio of a businessmen. It is the propaganda of a demagogue.