Apparently sensing where the 2016 presidential race was headed, I conducted a survey at the end of June using Google's survey toolset. This is the same tool that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump celebrated at the end of September when a survey conducted for the Independent Journal Review showed him ahead of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by two points (even though it also showed him losing the first debate). It's not the least scientific instrument out there; it's better than, say, a Drudge Report poll.
The question I asked was simple. If the election came down to two candidates, God or The Devil, for whom would you vote?
God won, in a landslide, but The Devil got 15 percent support. Screening out people who clicked the response unusually fast, people who didn't really stop and think about the critical choice they were making, God's margin of victory was only about 75 points. One in eight people voted for The Devil. People in the South and Midwest were statistically more likely to vote for God than were people in the Northeast.
It was just over a month later that Trump first referred to Clinton as "the devil." What he said then, in early August, was a bit more direct than the reference he made during the second presidential debate on Sunday night. At the debate, Trump said he was "so surprised" to see Sen. Bernie Sanders "sign on with the devil" after losing the Democratic primary to Clinton. (It's part of his charge that Clinton somehow stole victory from Sanders, a charge that has no merit.) In August, Trump had put an exclamation point on it: "He made a deal with the devil. She's the devil."
When I presented the survey I'd conducted to our pollster, he was very kind in pointing out how stupid the concept was, which is entirely fair. He gently explained that people understood the difference between some silly Internet poll and reality, and that asking a hypothetical question pitting pure good versus pure evil (so to speak) is a bit different than actually having to make that choice on a ballot.
So a 75-point margin of victory for goodness and light is probably small, but it's clear that The Devil would get some votes. There are people in the United States who identify as Satanists. There are a lot of people who believe that The Devil exists, of course; in 2003, Gallup found that the region holding that belief most strongly was the South. But some people directly worship The Devil to varying degrees of sincerity. In other words, it's correct to assume that, in a head-to-head presidential contest, The Devil wouldn't get shut out. There will always be a reason for someone to make a pick that many others find unconscionable.
There are a number of reasons that Bernie Sanders endorsed Hillary Clinton. He certainly wasn't happy about it, but Sanders backed Clinton for the simple reason that her politics are much more in line with his than are Trump's. Trump and many of his supporters may see Clinton as The Devil, but more people -- as evidenced by her lead in national polling -- see her as a preferable presidential candidate. Many of those Clinton supporters are similarly baffled at how so many people could back Trump.
In August, YouGov conducted a survey in which two-thirds of Clinton supporters said they would describe Trump as "evil," compared to eight in 10 Trump backers who said the same of Clinton. We don't have data on this over time, it's safe to assume, so it's hard to know how exceptional those numbers are. We do know, though, that half of working-class whites would never consider voting for Clinton and that half of everyone else would never consider voting for Trump. There's a deep split in the electorate over whom people find acceptable as a presidential candidate. A large percentage of America is getting ready to vote for someone whom another large percentage can't imagine ever backing.
That's the marvel buried in Trump's comment. He sincerely can't believe why any rational person would vote for Clinton over him. He can't believe why Sanders would go sign up with The Devil, much less why a plurality of voters are doing the same thing. And I guess the answer is: No matter how bad some people think a candidate might be, someone else will find that appealing.
Related reading from McSweeney's: Why I'm supporting the demonic creature that emerged from the depths of Hell in this year's presidential contest