How Polls, the News Media, and Putin gave Trump the Presidency

(This article was originally published in National Newswatch on Jan 9, 2017)

Did the Putin-inspired hacks of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) tilt the voting results in Trump’s favor? Seventeen US intelligence agencies believe Russia and in particular Putin interfered in the elections.  Republicans are careful to say there is no direct evidence proving it is the reason why Trump won. That may be true. However, from a purely methodological perspective the unequivocal answer is– yes, they did tip the results in Trump’s favor.

We just don’t know by how much.

The steady drip drip drip of DNC e-mail revelations over 4 months, from July to November of 2016, combined with massive media coverage absolutely guaranteed broad public awareness. The message was one of corrupt political practices employed by the Democratic National Committee,  in particular to undermine Bernie Sanders campaign. It was the same message that Trump repeated about Hillary Clinton regarding her private e-mail server and related deceptions. Undoubtedly for many voters the two messages were conflated into one — E-mails show that Hillary was corrupt.

That was the conditioned association planted in the minds of many Americans from the intense media bombardment.

For many who did not follow politics too closely, there was no distinction that Hillary Clinton e-mails were released by the State Department while DNC e-mails were essentially released by Putin via WikiLeaks. FBI Director Comey’s claim that Clinton did nothing illegal was not helped by her lack of truthfulness on the matter. Also while the DNC e-mails were politically tawdry, they were probably no worse than internal GOP e-mails– if Putin would have released them. To deny that none of this tipped some voters to Trump’s side is to deny that the billions of dollars advertisers spend promoting their products is effective.

Propaganda, whether it’s to sell a product or to sell a candidate, works very well in America.

What makes it  highly likely that this media conditioned association tilted the results in Trump’s favor is how incredibly close the election turned out to be.

While Donald Trump won the Electoral College vote 306 versus 232, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3,000,000 votes. Modest Trump victories in critical swing states won the day for Trump. Although polls have taken a drubbing for predicting a Hillary Clinton presidency, their prediction of the popular vote was not far off. Just before the election, a poll of polls average put Clinton ahead of Trump by 52% to 48% in a head-to-head comparison (excluding Libertarian and Green voters) . The actual popular vote was 51% versus 49% in favor of Clinton.

So how did a mere 1% change in popular vote turn an almost certain Clinton victory into a defeat?

Hidden Trump voters were the flies in the ointment. These are voters that none of the polls were able to quantify because they either refused to participate in the polls or would not admit their support of Trump to pollsters. This bias was systemic to all the polls. The only time the country learned of their presence was on election day. Our analysis shows that if only 2 of every 100 persons who voted for either Trump or Clinton on election day refused to participate or did not admit their support of Trump in pre-election polls, that would be enough to turn the tide in favor of Trump. This represents about 2% of all those voting for either Trump or Clinton, or 3 million of a total of about 129 million votes cast for two candidates.

The phenomenon of hidden voters was predicted by the German social scientist and pollster Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. Trained in the art of polling in America, she returned to Germany to practice her craft at the time when the Nazis had ascended to power. She found that respondents generally had a good sense of which issues society approved of versus those they didn’t. In order to avoid social disapproval some respondents would not reveal their true feelings to poll interviewers. Her research on this phenomenon is described in her book The Spiral of Silence.

This is precisely what happened in the presidential election. Trump was clearly a provocative candidate. As a consequence, a significant number of Trump supporters chose not to reveal their voting intentions to pollsters. Some would not participate in surveys. Others would not tell the truth. The nature and magnitude of this bias were only revealed on election day. And it’s not just a reticence to reveal their true feelings to interviewers. A CNN poll reported on November 13, 2016 found that about one of every three Trump supporters expressed concern about revealing their choice to friends and colleagues.

A similar response occurred in the Brexit polls that predicted Britain would remain in the EU while the referendum was won by those supporting Britain’s exit. Leaving the EU certainly did not have social approval of the British establishment or its media. As with the US presidential election, the referendum was won by the slightest of margins. A poll of polls had the remain side ahead by two percentage points while the referendum had the leave side ahead by four percentage points. This extraordinary difference was most likely accounted by the hidden Brexit supporters as hypothesized by the theory of Noelle-Neumann.

While the Putin-inspired hacks and hidden Trump voters were important factors that helped tilt a very close election in Trump’s favor, they were not the dominant factors that produced his victory. There was a powerful reason why millions of voters, many of whom did not like or trust Trump, cast their votes for him. While most Americans perceived both candidates to be highly untrustworthy, Trump was not a politician. Hillary Clinton was. That was the difference.

It was the reason why Republican women voted for him despite prima facie evidence that Trump was a serial sexual abuser. It was the reason why many who were not racist or Islamophobes voted for a man who spoke like he was. It was why many in the military voted for him when the candidate showed himself to be a coward in avoiding military service while criticizing military heroes like Sen. John McCain for service to his country. It was the reason patriotic Americans voted for Trump as he surrounded himself with Putin fans like Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Rex Tillerson, and Wilbur Ross. As the nonpolitician candidate, there was little Trump could say or do (“I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,”) that would deter millions of Americans from voting for him.

The media reaction to Trump had it all wrong. They jumped on every piece of nonsense that came out of his mouth, analyzed it ad nauseam and undertook polls to show the public was appalled. The media thought this approach would make Trump and his followers come to their senses.

They failed to understand that many in the public simply didn’t care what he said. In fact many supporters rationalized his ill-advised comments as rhetorical ploys, something to gain public attention and separate himself from the politically correct class. They supported Trump because as long as he kept being politically incorrect, they knew he wasn’t one of them. Yes, they were appalled by many things he said. But in their eyes, the behavior of the political class was far more appalling.

Unencumbered by any ideological commitment, Trump could say anything, anytime. Whatever it took to win, he was ready to say it. And win he did.

By focusing solely on the nonsense coming out of Trump’s mouth, the polls overlooked the central question of the 2016 election–Why was America so angry with its politicians?

The event that triggered this massive American revulsion to its politicians was the 2008 great recession. That was the same year that Obama was elected president. It was also the same year that Republicans elected to office decided they wouldn’t do the job to which they were elected i.e. to govern. They would simply oppose every legislative action from the Democratic side. It was also the same year that in the face of a mountain of evidence of malfeasance on the part of Wall Street banks, President Obama decided not to punish any of those responsible for the disaster. For all the billions of dollars of fraud perpetrated, no one was arrested, no one was tried and no one did jail time. It’s worth noting that some years earlier in the much, much smaller Savings and Loan banking scandal, hundreds of bankers were arrested and ended up in prison.

Imagine how someone living a comfortable, middle-class life would have felt when the Great Recession leaves them jobless, homeless, and impoverished while those who perpetrated the fraud were protected by politicians who they paid for. Could there be any greater sense of injustice and political betrayal among the millions damaged by this financial disaster?

A Gallup poll in December found that only 8% of Americans rated members of Congress as high or very high on honesty and ethical standards, the lowest of all professions listed. For nurses the corresponding figure was 84%. Even those nasty bankers did better with 24%. Not much on the honesty front has changed since 2008.

For many Americans, it was the straw (brutally big, to be fair) that broke the camel’s back.

Strangely. pollsters forgot about all that. Instead of relying on self-serving questionnaire priorities for their media paymasters i.e. how awful that Trump would deport 11 million Mexicans, or ban all Muslims from entering America, pollsters ought to have engaged far more with the lives and experiences of average Americans and learn what their priorities were. That decision would have created a dramatically different media narrative. It would have revealed the depth of despair among American workers. It may have even changed Clinton’s campaign strategy by paying more attention to the rust belt states that she lost by a whisker.

There have been many explanations hypothesized as to why Hillary Clinton lost. Many blame Clinton herself. Did she lose the election because she was such a terrible candidate? No. In terms of qualifications, she beat Trump hands down. But she was a career politician and it was Clinton’s misfortune in this election to be the symbol of this deep public discontent.

What has been underestimated in Trump’s victory was the news media. Not only did they fund polls that failed to ask the right questions and so deprive the American public of insights on important issues that turned the election, they provided Trump with a bully pulpit from which to galvanize public support.

They gave him air time, he gave them ratings.

The free publicity they delivered for Trump during the Republican primaries combined with media polls that had him leading his competitors made him simply unbeatable. Later, during the presidential campaign, the propaganda power of mass media was able to maintain the unjustified Trump accusation via the leaked emails that Hillary Clinton was too corrupt to be president. Without a doubt, mass media was Trump’s  greatest friend.

It is also most ironic that in this strange election, the one institution that Trump demonized throughout the campaign–news media–was perhaps most instrumental in his being elected as the Republican candidate and ultimately the President of the United States.

What is deeply troubling is that the election has been tainted by the active intervention of Russia in America’s election process specifically for the purpose of electing Trump. For a presidential candidate who has probably lied more than any other candidate in America’s history, a candidate that many Americans do not trust or respect, the potential illegitimacy of his election may be the most damaging revelation.

Trump knows this and he cannot allow the idea to gain traction.


Oleh Iwanyshyn has been involved in public opinion polling since the mid-70s, first with the Institute for Behavioral Research at York University, then the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and more recently with ViewStats Research, a company he cofounded in 1997.  He writes on the role of public opinion polls in matters of politics and public policy.  His articles have appeared in iPolitics, The Hill Times, and National NewsWatch. For more, see his blog poll stuff.

About Oleh Iwanyshyn

Oleh Iwanyshyn has been involved professionally with surveys from the mid-70s when he started as a methodologist at the Institute for Behavioral Research at York University. Later, while at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation his focus shifted to media and election surveys. He now runs his own survey research company, ViewStats Research, established in 1997 and specializing in online surveys. Public opinion surveys is an essential communication tool between a democratic society and its leaders. Unfortunately, surveys can be very easily manipulated. Revealing such manipulations and their consequences is the raison d'être of the poll stuff blog.
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