The President Still Loves Polls

The President Still Loves Polls
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President Trump pores over polling as hungrily in the White House as he did on the campaign trail.

“We show him stuff. We give him news of the day every day, and if there are polls that come out, we’ll include them,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told RealClearPolitics.

The president “consumes news like no other, so sometimes he’s telling us [about polling data],” his spokesman added, referencing surveys released publicly, including those commissioned by media outlets and analyzed in news coverage.

The president has made crystal clear that he values any favorable measure of his impact: polling, crowd counts at his rallies and his inauguration, the Electoral College outcome, favorable letters and phone calls, the number of job seekers hoping to work for his administration. Even confronting a negative metric -- 2.8 million more popular votes won by Hillary Clinton -- Trump has dissected the vote breakdown to emphasize states he won and assert (inaccurately) that 3 million to 5 million fraudulent votes buoyed his opponent. 

Trump is tuned in to his job approval numbers and the trend lines, understands how Americans believe the country is doing, and has absorbed the differences in surveys when it comes to the deeply partisan views expressed by Republicans, Democrats and independents, including by those who voted for the New York businessman in November. 

Unlike his predecessors, Trump has enjoyed no honeymoon in the wake of his bitterly fought race against Clinton. After two weeks at work in the Oval Office, those who disapprove of the job he’s doing outnumber those who applaud his performance, according to the RealClearPolitics average on Friday. Fifty-six percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track, an ominous indicator unless measured against a 13-point improvement seen since July.

Spokesman Spicer, when asked during his Friday press briefing how the White House reacted to a CBS News poll that found the new president’s job approval at a subpar 40 percent, pointed to a different survey he said placed Trump’s approval at 51 percent.

“I think that as the president's policies continue to get enacted -- you know, for all of the hysteria regarding his efforts to protect the country on those seven countries where we have -- didn't have the proper vetting in place to ensure that the American people were safe, what we did have was a very high response from the American people in support of that,” Spicer said.

“The president understands this is a marathon, not a sprint,” he added. “As he continues to get people back to work, protect this country, I think the poll numbers will act in accord.”

While Trump promised during his campaign to keep Americans safe from terrorists, Muslims, and undocumented migrants who wish to do the country harm, polls conducted in recent weeks show less support for the implemented details of Trump’s ideas. 

According to the CBS News survey, 57 percent of Americans think a temporary ban on refugees clashes with the founding principles of the United States. Among Republicans, however, nearly seven in 10 see a ban as consistent with the country’s founding principles. And who opposed Trump’s immigration and refugee orders in the same survey? Democrats and a majority of independents, the survey found.

Like many of his predecessors, Trump and his senior political advisers comb through public opinion surveys to assess the public mood, including data analyzed by media outlets. The information influences White House communications, and there have been clues in the last two weeks suggesting that voter sentiments help shape how and when policy decisions are announced in the West Wing. 

For example, Trump gauged reactions to his immigration orders, which temporarily halted the U.S. acceptance of some refugees and international travelers from seven primarily Muslim countries. While defending his actions against criticism from demonstrators, international heads of state, and members of Congress from both parties, Trump referred to his policy as a “ban,” while his spokesman later argued the result was not a travel ban or ban on Muslims seeking to enter the United States from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. 

In his spacious office Friday, as visitors darted in and out, Spicer echoed the president, who sees all the data, good and bad.

“Oh, yeah,” Spicer said. “I had given him the whole cross-tab thing the other day on the ban, or whatever it was. He gets it.”

Other White House aides who share various polling information with the president are Hope Hicks, who is the White House assistant to the president and director of strategic communications, and Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s counselor and a former GOP political pollster who helped steer Trump to victory last year while serving as his campaign manager, Spicer said.

Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama avoided discussing their reliance on polling information in public for fear they would appear less like principled leaders and too much like craven politicians. Both said polling helped guide their sales pitches more than policy decisions. Obama’s advisers liked to describe decisions he made that ran counter to polling, because they believed it made him appear bold and like a risk-taker. 

“One thing is, after seven and a half years, you don't worry about the polls any more,” Obama told a PBS town-hall audience last summer. “You really don't.”

President Clinton was famously addicted to polls and kept his personal pollster, Mark Penn, busy throughout two rollicking terms in office. During Clinton’s impeachment drama, especially, Penn was considered the president’s preeminent political adviser.

Former Clinton Press Secretary Mike McCurry, interviewed by presidency scholar Martha Joynt Kumar of Towson University for a 2007 book analyzing White House communications, said polling was one yardstick used to gauge whether and how Clinton’s communications goals were met. He said the president’s favorable/unfavorable ratings, plus the public’s assessments about whether the country was on the right or wrong track, were used as tests “of how a president is faring in the public mind and whether… a one-term president will have a chance to be re-elected.”

President Kennedy was the first president to regularly receive polls while in office, according to a political scientist who has written extensively on the subject.

“Presidential polling has a long history stretching back to FDR, and taking off under [President] Nixon,” said Larry Jacobs, director of the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “Their numbers increased, but as important, their purpose changed from detecting what Americans wanted to shaping messages to change public opinion to support White House policy and the president,” Jacobs added.

Trump has been so unabashed about referring to polling (some of it fictional) to bolster his points that his senior advisers naturally turned to polls to showcase the president’s policies.

During prepared remarks in the White House briefing room this week, Spicer said the president’s controversial immigration orders signed one week ago were supported by majorities of Americans. He cited a Rasmussen poll of likely voters and a Reuters survey of all Americans to make his points about Trump’s new policies.

“Most Americans agree with the steps that he's taking to keep our country safe,” the spokesman concluded.

However, the Gallup Organization on Friday reported that 55 percent of Americans said they do not support Trump’s temporary ban on people traveling to the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries. And 58 percent said they disapproved of the president’s indefinite suspension of the Syrian refugee program in this country. Nearly half (47 percent) said they thought the president was moving too fast to address major national problems.

Gallup surveyed more than 1,000 adults by telephone on Jan. 30-31, and the findings had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

Spicer told RealClearPolitics that since the inauguration, he has not been aware of any polls commissioned specifically for Trump and his team through entities such as the Republican National Committee or outside political groups.

Because public funds cannot be used to commission polling for a political purpose, presidents must obtain such customized research through intermediaries or their campaign staff, Jacobs noted.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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