Here on Planet Earth, the best understanding of the state of the presidential race is that Hillary Clinton has a solid-but-not-insurmountable lead. Recent polls — statistically measured surveys of thousands of American voters — have shown Clinton up by anywhere from 1 to 15 points over the course of the past week. Each poll includes a statistical margin of error, a calculation that indicates how far the results might be expected to deviate from reality. (Here's a good explainer.)
The best measure of polls is to average them over time. RealClearPolitics does this each time a new poll comes out, and their average shows the extent to which Clinton's lead grew after the conventions. Clinton now leads Donald Trump, on average, by 7 points.
That is reality.
For some supporters of Donald Trump, that reality is not acceptable. So, after Trump's bad post-conventions week, there have been a number of explanations those supporters have come up with to explain why Trump still holds a lead. Those claims deserve some context, by which I mostly mean "debunking."
The race is close because a few polls show a close race.
This is the least egregious example of the Trump's-doing-great arguments. On Sunday, the Drudge Report played up new data from the Los Angeles Times and USC; others have pointed to a close Reuters/Ipsos poll.
This is what's known as "cherry-picking," isolating polls that show the result closest to the one you hope to see. Clinton supporters could as easily run headlines that show her up 15 points or up 10 points — or up 9 points (two polls) or up 8. That's the point of the average — the average poll shows Clinton with a big lead.
It's also worth noting the headline on the Times's story about its poll: "Trump loses ground among key voter groups, tracking poll finds." The tracking poll includes a week of surveys, meaning that it extended back to earlier in the week, when Trump was doing better. That's another problem with picking cherries: Some of them are sort of sour.
By other measures (that have nothing to do with polling), Trump is doing great!
The Trump-supporting site Breitbart picked up a story from the conservative blog Gateway Pundit over the weekend: Social Media Patterns Show Trump Is Looking at a Landslide Victory.
Whoa, if true, as they say (about things that are not true).
Some key data points:
- On Facebook: Trump has 10,174,358 likes; Clinton, 5,385,959 likes.
- On Twitter: Trump has 10.6 million followers; Clinton, 8.1 million followers.
- On YouTube: Trump averages 30,000 live viewers per stream; Clinton, 500.
There you have it. "Based on turnouts at campaign events and on social media, if the election were today. … Trump would likely win in a Landslide!" Gateway Pundit's Jim Hoft writes, a sentiment similarly captured in this tweet from a prominent Trump backer.
Imagine polls don't exist. Show me evidence Hillary is winning?
— Bill Mitchell (@mitchellvii) August 8, 2016
We noted last week that Trump himself was starting to notice a disconnect between crowd size and election results. You know who had bigger crowds in the Democratic primaries? Bernie Sanders. You know who won the Democratic primaries? Not Bernie Sanders.
YouTube viewers are basically the social media equivalent of crowd size, so we can ignore that. What about the other social media stuff, though?
Social media hasn't been around long enough for us to have a good sense of how it correlates to electoral support. We know that in other contexts, it doesn't mean much: Toyota makes two of the three best-selling cars in the country, but Ford has more likes on Facebook.
In the context of electoral politics, there are some reasons it might not mean much. For one thing, we know that it is not representative of the electorate. Then there's the fact that one year ago, in late summer 2015, the Republican dominating social media was Ben Carson. You know who won the Republican nomination? Not Ben Carson.
Clinton is cheating/is going to cheat.
Donald Trump has begun to talk about his alleged concerns that the general election will be "rigged," an argument that mirrors claims from his supporters that it will be stolen. This is not feasible, if only by virtue of the required scale, and there is no evidence that it is happening or has happened at any scale that could affect an election. But that is no deterrent to people like Fox News's Sean Hannity or longtime Trump backer Roger Stone.
Over the weekend, Hannity got into a Twitter dispute with CNN's Brian Stelter.
Hey Brian check Philly enquirer after 2012. How many districts not a single Romney vote. Check Cleveland. Do u prep? https://t.co/5XORZzkdXQ
— Sean Hannity (@seanhannity) August 7, 2016
Let's allow Philadelphia elections inspector Ryan Godfrey to explain why Hannity is wrong.
"I'm an inspector of elections for a Philly voting division. Independent but was a Republican as recently as June," he wrote in a series of tweets. "People like me sign off on election results in every division in Philly. We take job seriously: certifying the accurate will of people. Claim that 59 divisions in Philadelphia engaged in electoral fraud in 2012 because no votes for Romney is absurd & personally insulting." Godfrey goes on to explain the logistics of how votes in the city were tallied and the numerous ways in which they are protected from tampering. What's more, he notes that there was a separate effort to identify any Mitt Romney voters in the heavily black precincts where Romney got skunked. None were found.
Stealing an election seems like it should be possible or fairly trivial, but it isn't. This is just one example of an eyebrow-raising anecdote that can be tossed into a pile to create a picture of fraud that, on objective analysis, simply doesn't hold up. Barack Obama won Pennsylvania by 310,000 votes. All of those were fake? If Obama had lost Pennsylvania, he would still have won the election. Were all of the results in the other states faked, too? There's simply no evidence that such wide-scale fraud existed, at all.
So why say it? Why question polls and highlight weird social media metrics? Because these things reinforce Trump's argument that the system — polls, the media, the system — is rigged against him. It gives his supporters confidence that they're the real majority, that they're representing the true will of the United States.
By the best estimate of where the country stands right at this moment — the polls — they aren't.