Fast forward. It’s the fall of 2016. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are standing on a debate stage, after pretending to respect each other with an awkward handshake. Trump is just weeks away from potentially making America great again with vague, bombastic bromides and policy decisions he doesn’t quite understand. Clinton, too, could soon be moving back to the White House, accompanied by her home-brew server, her ego and predatory husband.
The country is polarized – not on policy, but partisans defending Trump because of the ‘R’ next to his name, and partisans defending Clinton because of the ‘D’ next to her name. Neither has any crossover appeal.
This scenario isn’t what reasonable people want, and it isn’t what is going to happen. But if you listened to the cable news media in 2015, you would think it is inevitable and everyone has a side.
Not only is it not going to happen, but it’s also a completely irrational paradigm. Both Trump and Clinton are authoritarians, representing no substantive difference in thinking of the role of government. Both are immensely unlikeable, and with lowbrow rhetoric and an unhelpful embrace of polarization.
But we’ve let this false scenario seem like a reality, with, thanks to Trump, a newly-developed obsession with poll numbers. And, thanks to the Democratic National Committee, a lack of public discussion and debate among candidates.
Poll numbers have somehow been allowed to dictate debates. As much as I enjoy seeing Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee forced to debate at 5 p.m. in something dubbed the “kids table,” it’s also inherently unfair. The debate participants so far have been deciding solely on polling, either nationally or in Iowa or New Hampshire, with this week’s Fox Business debate being no different. This is a fine metric to understand some of who is campaigning well across the country and in early primary states, but it’s a small fraction of it, and also horribly inaccurate and outdated.
Trump’s campaign rhetoric revolving around polling and the idea that “winners win and losers lose, and I’m a winner polling at 35 percent” has made polling a recurring topic of conversation in this election. Constant insults of being around “3 percent” or hitting Jeb Bush for being low in the polls are commonplace, but anyone who has knowledge of how polling works or with a decent understanding of recent electoral history should cringe at this being a campaign talking point.
First of all, no one has a cast a single actual vote yet. But humoring the idea that polling should be taken as the best indicator of campaign success, understand what that means. These polls mean about 1,000 people are getting called on their landlines – meaning solely people that own landlines, meaning almost entirely people 55+ – are asked if the election were held today, who would be your first choice. Most are undecided – more than 70 percent of voters in Iowa said they could still change their minds before the caucus – but they give an answer, likely the name they are most familiar with. So Trump hits close to 30 percent, because he is on Fox News constantly, including as a regular fixture on Trump spokesman Sean Hannity’s show, and grabs more headlines for his insane views than anyone else.
This wouldn’t be a big deal if the mainstream media didn’t dictate its debate participants – or in other words, primetime speaking time – based on these misleading numbers. Imagine if now Gov.-elect Matt Bevin in Kentucky – who trailed by 5 points in the final poll before his gubernatorial election – was limited in exposure or written off for being assumed a loser. Despite that poll, Bevin defeated Democrat Jack Conway by 9 points, 53-44 percent.
What’s even more startling is how the poll-obsessed media accepting Trump’s narrative hasn’t learned anything from the past unpredictability of the Iowa Caucus. With about 20 days left to go in 2012, thanks to Herman Cain recently dropping out of the race, Newt Gingrich “led” the field with 30 percent, followed Mitt Romney and Ron Paul hovering in the mid-teens, a far distant second and third. The actual top three when voting finished was Rick Santorum (who, with a month left, could not break 4 percent in polls), Romney and Paul. Gingrich finished in a far distant fourth.
So what should be a better indicator than polls? There needs to be a more algorithmic solution. Polls by landline are not much more dramatically scientific than Internet polls, the latter of which are usually discredited. No one has cast a vote yet, so in theory every candidate is on equal footing, but the closest thing to voting has been straw polls – which are a good indicator of grassroots organizing, which will pay off largely in caucus states.
In the largest straw poll, the CPAC straw poll, Rand Paul has won three consecutive years, including this year with 25.7 percent of the vote. Trump finished with just 3.5 percent. Ted Cruz ran away with the Value Voters Summit straw poll with 42 percent, 24 points ahead of second-place finisher Ben Carson. Trump had 5 percent. At the Southern Republican Leadership Council, Ben Carson won with 25.4 percent. Trump barely registered with 1.2 percent. Carson also won the Western Conservative Summit with 26 percent, Trump had 1.7.
Trump has not one a single state straw poll, only finishing second once, and usually not eclipsing 10 percent. Most state straw polls were won by either Paul or Carson, indicating a far better grassroots effort than Trump supporters, who would rather tweet angry things in ALL CAPS than organize in the field.
Given all this, I would have a fair level of confidence that Paul, who has more than 1,000 precinct chairs in Iowa will finish top 3 in the state, Trump will fade and quit to go do another “fantastic” season of “The Apprentice” and make more dress shirts in Mexico. But Trump has pushed the polling narrative so far to the point where it has the potential to have real impact. Trump controlled the media narrative so much in 2015, that the likelihood of some real dumb electoral outcomes – in which the GOP ignores its years of constitutional rhetoric in favor of voting for a psychopathic authoritarian – is high in 2016.
Things are equally as frustratingly moronic on the Democrat side, where Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and the DNC have hid their debates on weekends. Not only is the Democrat’s next debate on a Sunday, but it will be airing opposite an NFL playoff game. The motive of course is to limit the exposure of the scandal-ridden, flip-flopping Clinton receives before her coronation as the Democrat nominee. Considering that Bernie Sanders is about even with her in both Iowa and New Hampshire – going, of course, by inaccurate polls that you would think would favor Clinton – any further exposure of Clinton’s questionable credentials among the progressive left (and corrupt credentials among decent Americans) could only hurt. And, unfortunately, hiding the debates seems to be working, much like talking about polls instead of ideas seems to be working, too.
For presidential politics on both sides, 2015 was a pretty stupid year. Considering how many headlines were dedicated to the early goings of the campaign season, very few substantive ideas were discussed, and we are not having a real discussion yet on the future of this country after a polarizing eight years of President Obama.
Voters will be making actual decisions soon, much of it based off terrible election coverage and misleading discussion of poll numbers. We can’t go back and edit 2015, but let’s make 2016 a smarter year, at least.