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Analysis: Donald Trump just accidentally told the truth about his view on polls

Well, he did it again.

During his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, Texas, over the weekend, Trump let loose with this line explaining his strategy on polling:

“If it’s bad, I say it’s fake. If it’s good, I say that’s the most accurate poll ever.”

Yup. That about captures it!

There are very few through lines for Donald Trump since he entered American politics in earnest in early 2015. His obsession with polling is definitely one of them.

It began as a love affair. From his earliest days as a candidate, Trump would cite polls that purported to show good news for him. He would, quite literally, read positive poll numbers out loud at rallies during the 2016 campaign. And any time a new poll came out that he deemed to be good news for him — and there were a lot in the winter of 2015 and spring of 2016 — Trump would take to Twitter to tout it.

“Wow, my poll numbers have just been announced and have gone through the roof!” he tweeted in December 2015. (Between May 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016,Trump sent more than 280 tweets with the word “poll” in them, according to the Trump Twitter Archive.)

The relationship took a turn for the worst during the 2016 general election campaign, as most data showed Hillary Clinton likely to beat Trump.

“Even though we’re doing pretty good in the polls, I don’t believe the polls anymore,” Trump said at a speech in October 2016. “I don’t believe them. I don’t believe them. And if there’s 10 and there’s one or two bad ones, that’s the only one they show.”

Then he won. And suddenly polls became just another arrow in Trump’s everyone-is-out-to-get-me conspiracy theories. Pollsters, to hear Trump tell it, had it out for him. They didn’t want him to win so they doctored his numbers to hurt him. They were fake news, just like all the rest!

None of that was true, of course. Yes, pollsters did miss the extent of the strength of Trump’s appeal to non-college white voters in the industrial Midwest. And, yes, those voters delivered Trump the White House. But no one who conducts major national polls — Gallup, Pew and the media companies — was actively fiddling with any numbers. (Read this for more on why 2016 polls in key swing states missed the mark.)

And yet, for all of his criticism of polling, Trump couldn’t give them up — even as his first term wore on and his numbers cratered. And even as he tried to convince voters polls didn’t matter to him.

“I love polls,” Trump said at a campaign rally in the fall of 2018. “Only when they’re good. When they’re not good, I don’t talk about them.” Except that he did talk about them. Endlessly.

“We are advertising all over the place, but as much as we do, the Fake News likes to say we aren’t,” he tweeted in mid-September 2020. “Just being smart. We have much more money than we had at same time in 2016. Also spending on other, and different, elements of the campaign. Starting to get great poll numbers!”

“The Gallup Poll has just come out with the incredible finding that 56% of you say that you are better off today, during a pandemic, than you were four years ago (OBiden). Highest number on record! Pretty amazing!” he tweeted in October 2016.

Then after Trump lost, of course he blamed the polls — again.

“The Fake Pollsters at @ABC/@washingtonpost produced a possibly illegal suppression Poll just before the Election showing me down 17 points in Wisconsin when, in fact, on Election Day, the race was even – & we are now preparing to win the state,” Trump tweeted on November 11, 2020. “Many such ‘deplorable’ instances!”

The truth exposed by all of this is that polling is just another character in the story Donald Trump is telling himself — and his adoring crowds — about his life and his political fortunes. Just like in every other aspect of his life — both before, during and after his time in the White House — Trump is willing to bend (and break) the truth in order to fit his preferred narrative of what’s going on. (As Philip Bump of The Washington Post noted back in 2019, Trump regularly makes up “polls.”)

Because Trump lacks any sort of compunction about lying, he feels totally comfortable saying whatever he wants to say about polling. And as he has repeatedly admitted, any time there’s a poll that doesn’t fit Trump’s worldview, he simply says it’s “fake.”

Remember: When someone tells you exactly who they are and why they do what they do, believe them.

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