Mis­lead­ing polls and fake news

Me­dia re­liance on polls re­veals its lim­ited un­der­stand­ing of the Amer­i­can peo­ple

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY - By Brian J. Wise

News­casts con­tinue to be filled with ref­er­ences to polling num­bers that sug­gest Pres­i­dent Trump and his poli­cies are deeply un­pop­u­lar, and that the Amer­i­can peo­ple over­whelm­ingly op­pose the ac­tions taken by Amer­ica’s 45th pres­i­dent dur­ing his first 100 days in of­fice. In all these sto­ries, news out­lets con­tinue to ref­er­ence tra­di­tional polling to mea­sure voter sen­ti­ment about Mr. Trump. But this demon­strates their con­tin­ued re­fusal to try to un­der­stand the pri­or­i­ties of main street Amer­i­cans and, more im­por­tantly, the peo­ple who wanted Don­ald J. Trump to be pres­i­dent and con­tinue to sup­port him.

Al­most ev­ery­one in the main­stream press wrongly pre­dicted the 2016 elec­tion out­come. Months later, the me­dia doesn’t seem to have learned much from its mis­takes. While Mr. Trump’s crit­ics recoil at his scat­ter­shot ex­ec­u­tive or­ders and de­cry every ac­tion his administration takes as “un­prece­dented” and “ter­ri­fy­ing,” his core sup­port­ers are cheer­ing the ful­fill­ment of nearly all of the ma­jor campaign prom­ises that won him their votes — build­ing a bor­der wall, shrink­ing the fed­eral bu­reau­cracy, re­duc­ing reg­u­la­tions, re­strict­ing immigration, putting Amer­ica first eco­nom­i­cally, re­plac­ing Oba­macare, and the list goes on.

We saw the im­pact of re­ly­ing too heav­ily on “big data” in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion cy­cle. Mr. Trump’s great­est source of sup­port was non-tra­di­tional vot­ers who turned out in droves. Those same pop­u­la­tions con­tinue to cel­e­brate his un­ortho­dox ac­tions now, even while still be­ing un­der-counted in tra­di­tional polls.

To un­der­stand Trump sup­port­ers, one must first un­der­stand that they are not part of the tra­di­tional sys­tem, they typ­i­cally do not en­gage in polls, and they ac­tively work to pro­tect the very data that polls rely on. As a re­sult, polls that show wide­spread op­po­si­tion to the pres­i­dent’s poli­cies and ac­tions are in­her­ently flawed in their method­ol­ogy, be­cause they do not in­clude a sig­nif­i­cant pop­u­la­tion that would dras­ti­cally al­ter the results. The first ques­tion typ­i­cally asked in polls is whether or not the sub­ject con­sents to par­tic­i­pate in the poll. Since most Trump sup­port­ers are in­her­ently skep­ti­cal of pro­vid­ing per­sonal data, they de­cline to par­tic­i­pate, so the polls that me­dia sources cite do not in­clude the very pop­u­la­tion that would re­flect the sup­port that these me­dia sources say doesn’t ex­ist.

A deeper un­der­stand­ing of de­mo­graph­ics and de­mo­graphic pat­terns re­quires more than sim­ply en­ter­ing and an­a­lyz­ing data points. The rea­son Kellyanne Con­way was

so suc­cess­ful, and could ar­guably be con­sid­ered the Trump campaign’s MVP, is be­cause she un­der­stood that, even as a poll­ster, polling is not about col­lect­ing data sets; it is about un­der­stand­ing peo­ple.

As a net­work news pro­ducer for 10 years, I had the op­por­tu­nity to travel all over the coun­try get­ting to meet peo­ple and hear their sto­ries. Some­times I en­coun­tered them dur­ing good times for them and their fam­i­lies. More of­ten it was at times of great tragedy — as they fled wild­fires rav­aging their town, as hurricanes and flood­wa­ters forced them into the at­tics of their houses, and, in some cases, as their fam­ily mem­bers were taken from them in some of the most grue­some and hor­rific ways one could imag­ine. When you have a chance to see peo­ple at their best, and at their worst, you de­velop a deep un­der­stand­ing of hu­man be­ings that polls can rarely repli­cate.

To suc­cess­fully cover this White House, re­porters need to stop re­ly­ing on ap­proval polls and be­gin en­gag­ing di­rectly with the Amer­i­can peo­ple. Don­ald Trump won the White House be­cause he un­der­stood that he had the sup­port of a huge swath of Amer­ica far re­moved from the D.C. and New York news stu­dios, de­spite that sup­port not be­ing re­flected in elec­tion polls.

Re­porters who want to in­crease their cred­i­bil­ity with the Amer­i­can pub­lic would be well served not to sound smug when they see that a poll shows no one in Amer­ica likes Mr. Trump, and in­stead re­al­ize that polls don’t al­ways paint the full pic­ture. Ar­ro­gance and ig­no­rance ren­dered their ivory tower reporting wrong in 2016. That ar­ro­gance con­tin­ues to leave jour­nal­ists dumb­founded that Mr. Trump is able to gar­ner crowds in the thou­sands at his events. To­day’s jour­nal­ists sim­ply can’t be­lieve that they could be wrong about their abil­ity to dis­cern or dic­tate the will of the peo­ple. To re­ally un­der­stand the wave of sup­port that pushed the Trump campaign for­ward, and con­tin­ues to greet his ac­tions with cel­e­bra­tion, not dis­dain, mem­bers of the me­dia must get out­side the Belt­way and on the ground in the streets of Amer­ica.

The fact is that no poll re­gard­ing Mr. Trump is go­ing to be able to ac­cu­rately re­flect his sup­port or op­po­si­tion. And that is in­fu­ri­at­ing the rul­ing elite both in me­dia and pol­i­tics. While sci­en­tific meth­ods work with pop­u­la­tions that are en­gaged in the sys­tem and re­spond to polling queries, the anal­y­sis breaks down with groups that are not tra­di­tional vot­ers. These vot­ers have a cham­pion now, for bet­ter or worse, and that de­mo­graphic feels em­pow­ered for the first time in over 30 years.

Brian J. Wise is the man­ag­ing part­ner of Wise Pub­lic Af­fairs and a vet­eran net­work news pro­ducer for ABC News, CBS News and Fox News Chan­nel.


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