You don't need to have spent too much time on the Internet to know that online surveys where anyone can vote are pretty much garbage. Like, for example, the local news channel that accompanies a story about how some teens got expelled for TP-ing the school with a little poll on the side asking if the punishment was appropriate. That poll will be 95 percent people agreeing with the punishment, because the people responding are the people who have time to sit around and click on polls on local news websites, which is to say they are retirees.
That analogy is both unfair and a terrible approximation of the truth! But, then, so are those online polls.
One person that loves such polls is Donald Trump. This isn't very surprising from the guy who said a protester at one of his rallies was linked to the Islamic State because it was "on the Internet," or who tweets made up news stories from the blogs of online print shops.
It also isn't surprising if you've been paying any attention to what Trump has been saying in interviews or on Twitter. He constantly insists that he's won every debate, citing online, anyone-can-click polls from the Drudge Report and other outlets to bolster his claim.
But of course Trump loves those non-scientific polls. The guy's been winning similar surveys thanks to his fans flooding the responses for at least 25 years.
During the period in 1990 when Trump and his first wife Ivana were very publicly ending their marriage, USA Today asked its readers to call in to offer their opinions on the real estate magnate. People could call to agree with one of two statements:
- "Donald Trump symbolizes what makes the USA a great country," or
- "Donald Trump symbolizes the things that are wrong with this country"
It's not entirely clear why USA Today decided to do the poll, other than that they wanted to leverage a good water-cooler topic into a little extra spending money. The calls were 1-900 calls costing $0.50 a piece -- and nearly 8,000 people weighed in.
The results -- presented in an article titled, "You like him! You really like him! Despite hype, Trump's a hero to many" -- were conclusive. Nearly 80 percent of callers people thought that Trump was a symbol of America's greatness. By way of anecdotal reinforcement, the paper talked to one Andre Merlet of Florida, who said Trump was "my hero." Merlet's powerboat was named "NX TRUMP." (NX meaning "next," which took me a while to figure out.)
But there was a problem.
"The calls had been running a steady 2-to-1 in Trump's favor Friday and Saturday," USA Today's Gary Strauss wrote. "However, a surge of more than 1,000 calls in the hours before the hot line ended at 6 p.m. EDT Sunday ran 93% positive." Strauss quoted a guy from the company that conducted the survey: "That's definitely odd, out of character with how these things go."
The next month, USA Today could report on what had happened.
Cincinnati financier Carl H. Lindner Jr. loaded the dice for Donald Trump in a call-in survey conducted for USA TODAY last month.
Calls from two telephone numbers at Great American Insurance Co., a subsidiary of Lindner's American Financial Corp., accounted for 5,640 of 7,802 calls (72%) made to USA TODAY's Trump hot line, held June 8 through June 10.
Lindner wouldn't comment, but a spokeswoman said the calls were made because Lindner and others at the company admire Trump's ''entrepreneurial spirit.''
Lindner's firm paid more than $2,800 to support Trump. That's more than $5,100 in 2016 dollars. The guy could afford it. By the mid-2000s, Lindner was one of the richest people in the world.
The final tally for the survey is a little murky, since the original story didn't include all of the calls. It seems clear, though, that nearly all of the positive calls for Trump came from Lindner's company. (Presumably, one also came from Merlet.)
To The Washington Post, USA Today's pollster Jim Norman expressed regret. "You can definitely put us in with those people who have been burned by 1-900 number polls," he said.
The original article had some other classic lines, by the way, that we recreate here now for the purposes of entertainment.
Frank Farley, a University of Wisconsin psychologist who studies hero worship, says that in many ways, Trump embodies strengths we look for in our heroes: courage, strength, creativity, pride - and especially, risk-taking. "He's a Type-T personality, 'T' standing for thrill-seeker. He takes risks and that's one of the things we admire ... no matter what the field," he says.
Adds Mike McKay, a radio disc jockey at Erie, Pa.-based WXTA-FM: "Anyone who names a board game after himself needs to be taken down a notch or two."
Both fair points. (Emphasis added to things we found extra amusing.)
What's most amazing about this is that, in the era before Twitter, there is no record from that period of Trump ever having told everyone that he symbolized what made America a great country. "You saw USA Today -- a very respected newspaper, one of the best -- did a poll showing that 80 percent of people think I symbolize America?," we imagine him saying. "Eighty percent! No one has numbers like that. Everyone's saying I'm living the American dream."
But that would be a ridiculous claim, wouldn't it?