Once again, there's evidence suggesting traditional polls aren't accurately measuring support for the president and his policies.
|Recent findings are reigniting the campaign debate over whether pollsters are accurately measuring President Donald Trump’s popularity.|
Traditional phone polls that use live interviewers — including some of the most trusted polls in politics and media — report limited support for Trump and the controversial executive orders he’s signed. But automated phone and Internet-based surveys tell a different story. Once the element of anonymity is added, the president’s approval ratings suddenly look a lot better.It’s reigniting the campaign debate over whether pollsters are accurately measuring Trump’s popularity — or the breadth of support for his policies. The White House is already seizing on the issue, and forcefully pushing back against the early narrative that the president is suffering from historically bad polling numbers.
At Friday’s White House press briefing, when asked to comment on a newly-released CBS News poll — conducted by live interviewers — which put Trump’s approval rating at only 40 percent, press secretary Sean Spicer was ready with an alternate data point.
“I think there’s also a Rasmussen poll that showed he had a 51-percent approval rating,” Spicer replied sharply.In referring to an automated poll that put the president’s popularity in the black, Spicer actually understated Trump’s level of support. According to Rasmussen Reports’ most recent survey released Friday, 54 percent of likely voters approved of the president’s job performance.
The debate is a flashback to last fall’s election — in which Trump ran ahead of his poll numbers, particularly in the Upper Midwest states that propelled him to victory. And just like during the campaign season, there’s evidence suggesting that Americans may be less willing to admit they support the president and his actions if they are talking to another person on the phone, compared to polls completed with the anonymity of the internet or an automated phone interface.
“I think you’re getting two things,” said John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster who worked for Trump during the campaign. “One, the online surveys, people are more likely to put in an honest answer because they’re not speaking to a human being.”
McLaughlin notes there are other differences. Some polls, like Rasmussen Reports, survey likely voters, though it isn’t clear in which election the respondents are likely to vote. The POLITICO/Morning Consult poll is conducted among registered voters, while Gallup and CNN/ORC survey all adults.
Generally, polls of all adults are more Democratic-leaning, while likely-voter polls tilt more toward Republicans. Self-identified Republicans have been more likely to turn out in recent elections than their counterparts in the other party.
“A poll of all adults about the new administration will tell you what a possible electorate will look like if everyone showed up,” McLaughlin said. “But they don’t.”
The disparities between modes of polling are hard to miss. Majorities of Americans in Gallup, CBS News and CNN/ORC polls — all live-interviewer— released this week disapprove of both Trump’s order temporarily banning citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. and the indefinite suspension of the U.S.’s Syrian refugee program. The president’s approval ratings are underwater in all of them, and two of the polls report a majority disapproves of Trump’s performance to date.
Those results differ from other polls utilizing newer, more anonymous methodologies. Polls conducted over the internet from Reuters/Ipsos and Huffington Post/YouGov indicate, on balance, support for these initiatives is modestly higher among Americans than opposition. A Rasmussen Reports survey, conducted via automated telephone calls, pegs support for the order at 52 percent among likely voters, with 43 percent opposed. The Democratic automated-phone pollster Public Policy Polling finds opposition to the ban (49 percent) only marginally greater than support for it (47 percent) among registered voters.
Trump’s average approval rating in live-caller surveys is only 41 percent, with 49 percent disapproving. But averaging together the five most recent internet or automated phone calls yields a 48-percent approval rating for Trump, with 46 percent disapproval.
This week’s POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, conducted over the internet, was among the most positive for Trump: 49 percent of registered voters approved of his job performance, while only 41 percent disapproved.
Kyle Dropp, Morning Consult’s co-founder and chief research officer, acknowledged that the poll’s online methodology could explain why it showed Trump in better shape than other, live-interview surveys.
“There could be a mode effect at play like there was during the election,” Dropp said.
Throughout the campaign, researchers studied whether “shy Trump” voters — people who intended to vote for Trump but didn’t want to admit it to pollsters — existed, and whether they could tip the race to the New York businessman. A study from POLITICO and Morning Consult in October of last year showed only a slight difference between voters interviewed online and over the phone.
The presence of a live interviewer on the other end of the phone line isn’t the only difference between the surveys. Each of the polls uses different question wording that may contribute to the differences between them — with Rasmussen’s invoking of keeping out “individuals who are terrorist threats” perhaps leading to the strongest support measured by the polls thus far.
So far, polling on the performance of the nascent Trump administration is limited. And there are only a handful of readings for the most controversial of Trump’s actions thus far: the immigration and refugee order issued just last Friday.
But the president’s first two weeks in the White House raise questions about whether Trump is better viewed than traditional measures indicate — and whether the hard edge of some of his provocative stances and statements will make it difficult to accurately gauge his support right up until his likely reelection bid in 2020.
Pollsters are already studying the emerging phenomenon, though there’s no consensus yet on whether social-desirability bias — respondents’ reticence to express support for Trump because they believe he is viewed negatively by others — is the main driver.
For now, the polling gap provides talking points for all sides.
“The president understands this is a marathon, not a sprint,” Spicer said at his Friday press briefing. “As he continues to get people back to work [and] protect this country, I think the poll numbers will act in accord.”
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