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Why Donald Trump is polling well — for now

Political scientist John Sides says it’s because the media is writing and talking about him so much.

Donald Trump speaking at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, on Saturday.

Writing for the Washington Post’s excellent Monkey Cage blog, political scientist John Sides suggests that the reason Donald Trump is polling well in the context of the Republican presidential field is that the media is writing and talking about him so much. Writes Sides:

“When a pollster interrupts people’s lives and asks them about a presidential primary that doesn’t formally begin for months, a significant number of people will mention whichever candidate happens to be in the news these days. It’s basically a version of what’s called the ‘availability heuristic.’ And for any causal consumer of news, Trump is very available these days.”

Undoubtedly, Sides (who professes political science at George Washington University) has a valid starting point. Much (and probably most) of what the general public knows about political figures comes through some form of journalism.

Trump has certainly dominated coverage of the race for the Republican nomination recently and he has risen to the top of several recent polls, although it is questionable how meaningful such a “lead” is when you lead with 18 percent in a field of (approximately) 15 candidates and you are still the candidate whom most respondents say they cannot see themselves supporting.

Blame the media?

Sides demonstrates with a graphic a convincing correlation between Trump’s recent rise in the polls and the amount of coverage he has received. The correlation underlies the worst thing about the Sides post, something he probably didn’t write, which is the headline on his article: “Why is Trump Surging? Blame the media.”

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Headlines are necessarily shallow. And I have no interest here in mounting a general defense of the news media’s conduct. But the silly headline seems to imply that journalists are somehow aiding and abetting Trump’s short-term rise, as measured by polls, to the high teens, which looks high at the moment only because the Repub field is so large. (The Democratic side of the Fox poll that has Trump leading with 18 percent shows Bernie Sanders with 19 percent, which, of course, looks a lot different because of the smaller Dem field, dominated by the frontrunner, Hillary Clinton.)

Discovery and scrutiny

If you are horrified that Trump’s boorishness is being rewarded with support in the polls (and, if so, you would probably not be alone), you should take heart from another part of Sides’ piece in which he suggests that a “discovery” period (Sides’ term) in which the public tells pollsters they support you because they’ve been hearing your name in the news is followed by a period Sides calls “‘scrutiny’ — in particular, scrutiny from the news media, aided and abetted by the competing candidates. (Hillary Clinton knows all about this.) This scrutiny tends to produce much less favorable coverage and, for many candidates, a permanent decline in the candidate’s poll numbers.”

As I said above, I’m not defending, in a general sense, the media’s role in shaping the public’s attitude toward candidates (although it is a lot more honest and informative than the other main source of political messages, namely campaign commercials).

The so-called objective portions of the media insist that they are not trying to make anyone’s poll numbers go up or down, and this is more or less true. The question of how many times to put Donald Trump on the front page when he is both leading in the polls and saying outrageous things is not simple one. In fact, his peevish vulgarity is also good copy, as he undoubtedly knows.

I don’t believe those journalists who go on the chat shows and make predictions are particularly good at seeing the future. I shy away from fortune-telling myself. But I will be very surprised if Trump becomes the nominee of any major party. And I hope that Sides is right about the power of the “scrutiny” phase, not so it can produce a decline in any particular candidate’s poll numbers but so that this very consequential election can be about something more substantive than bad hair and bad manners.

p.s. to the above added midmorning Tuesday: The Washington Post has a new poll out this morning showing Trump’s poll numbers even higher (24 percent) and further ahead of the rest of the field (Scott Walker ran second at 13 percent). But the Post it notes that the last day of the polling was the only day that occurred after Trump’s attack on John McCain’s heroism and that his standing on that day was dramatically down. Wrote the Post:

“Support for Trump fell sharply on the one night that voters were surveyed following those comments. Telephone interviewing for the poll began Thursday, and most calls were completed before the news about the remarks was widely reported. Although the sample size for the final day was small, the decline was statistically significant. Still, it is difficult to predict what could happen to Trump’s support in the coming days and weeks as the controversy plays out.”