Before Donald Trump, there’s never been a presidential candidate more publicly obsessed with polls. Beyond mere vanity, Trump’s poll preoccupation reveals worrying aspects of his character that are relevant for the presidency.
Effective presidents have to be able to cut through the information clutter and honestly analyze circumstances. But Trump constructs a version of reality that’s favorable to him, short-circuiting his ability to examine errors.
After last week’s debate with Hillary Clinton, Trump bragged about winning a CBS News poll that didn’t exist. Trump also ignored the scientific polls, all of which showed Clinton won the debate, and touted unscientific online surveys with no merit for measuring public opinion.
Huge numbers of people answer internet opt-in polls. But, as the Literary Digest straw poll fiasco of 1936 showed, more isn’t better if the respondents are unrepresentative of the voting population. Eighty years ago, over two million people answered the magazine’s survey measuring support in the presidential election between President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Kansas Gov. Alfred Landon. But it got the result wrong by 20 percentage points and wrongly predicted Roosevelt would lose. In contrast, Gallup and other scientific pollsters who surveyed about a thousand people each were far more accurate.
Beyond this unscientific bent, Trump stands out as a person who relishes flattery no matter the source.
Perhaps it was this aspect of Trump’s character that prompted a wealthy friend to stuff a USA Today virtual ballot box in 1990.
Back then the paper frequently put up questions to be answered by readers who called different numbers to register different answers (for example, one phone number for no, another for yes). Calls cost 50 cents. This method isn’t real polling.
That year the Trump Shuttle lost money and Trump’s Atlantic City casino faced financial trouble, largely because making debt payments hurt the cash flow. It wasn’t well known then, but one way Trump tried to stay afloat was by stiffing small businesses hired to do work for him.
The paper asked readers to decide whether Donald Trump, a well known celebrity, “symbolizes what makes the USA a great country” or “symbolizes the things that are wrong with this country.” A high volume of calls at the last minute were 93 percent pro-Trump, pushing the final count to 81 percent in favor. Trump said he was “greatly honored by the results.”
Given that call-in polls are not an accurate way of discerning public opinion, Trump’s initial reaction to the phone-in poll shows his tendency to fool himself when he likes what he sees.
But there was more to come, and Trump’s response was even more telling. An investigation revealed skewing by cheating. A full 72 percent of all calls came from auto-dialing phones at the Great American Insurance Company, a subsidiary of the American Financial Corporation owned by Trump’s friend Carl Lindner. Without the automated calls, only 45 percent would have endorsed the positive view of Trump.
Lindner’s scheme suggests that Trump’s associates knew he was a man who cared deeply about how others saw him.
More chillingly, this doesn’t seem to stop at polls, as former CIA Director Michael Morrell recently wrote, “Mr. Putin played upon Mr. Trump’s vulnerabilities by complimenting him.”
This situation also demonstrates a characteristic identified by Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of “The Art of the Deal,” the 1987 book credited to Trump. In Schwartz’s words, Trump is “obsessed with publicity.”
He “only takes two positions. Either you’re a scummy loser, liar, whatever, or you’re the greatest,” Schwartz said this summer in an interview with The New Yorker. Image and brand are key.
And so, despite the fact that Lindner cheated, Trump enjoyed having a rich friend who went to the trouble to misrepresent Trump as beloved by the masses. When Trump found out that the result was rigged, instead of separating him from this fraud, his spokesman said Trump was “honored that someone should take the time” to make the calls.
Competent decision-making requires a clear-eyed look at the facts at hand, accompanied by critical thinking about sources of information and people’s motives, and a desire to learn from mistakes. For a president, life and death can hang in the balance.
Thus Trump’s willingness to tout fake opinion polls isn’t a harmless quirk. Rather, it reveals a lack of concern with accuracy. Trump also exhibits a tremendous interest with praise and popularity, even if the evidence for popular support is false. It’s troubling to imagine a president carrying these traits beyond misleading polls into national decision-making.