Forget the ‘have-a-beer-with’ question. Think nuclear codes.

REUTERS/Mike Segar
Donald Trump speaking at a campaign rally in Reno, Nevada, on Wednesday.

The quote is of ambiguous provenance, but brilliant nonetheless: “If you torture the numbers long enough, they’ll confess to anything.”

Too often, we believe something not because the evidence supports it; too often we pay attention only to evidence that allows us to believe (or continue believing) what we prefer to believe.

We’ve seen this a hundred times during the campaign. After 10 polls in a row from six different pollsters show Donald Trump trailing Hillary Clinton, one comes out showing him tied or ahead. Having never mentioned any of the previous polls, Trump announces the “good” one to one of his rallies and the place goes wild. Maybe it’s natural or normal, but it’s a case of this selective perception/confirmation bias in action.

I haven’t written much about polls this year. That’s on purpose. I decided it wasn’t my function to say who was winning, nor who will win, in part because I don’t know, but also because it’s the wrong question. At its core, the job of the voter is not figure out who will be president, but to decide who should be president, based on which candidate you believe will do the better job, and then to vote for that candidate. And the job of a public scribbler like me is to pass along information and analysis that might reasonably make that decision a slightly more thoughtful or informed one.

I know this terribly schoolmarm-ish of me. Of course, the “horse-race” poll is only a small subset of things polls tell you that won’t really help you make up your minds how to spend your vote. There’s a jillion (or do I mean two jillion?) poll questions, which aren’t exactly horse-race questions but are used in stories to nonetheless advance the horse-race analysis. Whom are voters more likely to vote for, the one they trust more on the economy or the one they trust more on foreign policy.

Well, at least those are valuable considerations in deciding whom you should trust with the job. But my absolute least favorite are polls that delve into the “likability” stuff. Can I just say that a) I feel I have little valid basis for liking or disliking far-away strangers whom I know mostly from watching them on TV, striving (and often failing) to project likability; and b) my hunch that I would like one of them more as a friend carries very little overlap with which one would be a better chief executive and commander in chief.

Likability (and a few other things) got us George W. Bush instead of Al Gore in 2000. When I wrote about famous debate “gaffes” recently, I didn’t include (but could have) Gore sighing audibly and rolling his eyes obnoxiously at the falsehoods Bush was spewing to justify some of his policy positions. In almost all cases, Gore was correct (but obnoxious) in attempting to signal by sighs that Bush’s facts were off. But who would you rather have running the Executive Branch, a smarty pants, or a regular guy with whom you would much rather have a beer?

Oy, the have-a-beer-with question. Drives me nuts. It strikes me as almost encouraging voters to attach more weight to the least relevant factors.

Actually, I don’t remember the beer question being used before the Bush-Gore race. Bush, as it happens, was a recovering alcoholic, so good luck having a beer with him. But even if you could, how do those beerable qualities translate into the guy you would also rather entrust with the nuclear codes? But, as best we could understand, preference for Bush as a beer buddy had much to do with why he won (if we won).

Trump, by the way, apparently out-beer-withs Clinton (by 45-37, with 17 percent unsure or, I hope, refusing to answer the stupid beer question.) And Trump, like Bush, claims to be a nondrinker. But the poll that included that question, perhaps wondering whether the beer question had a tinge of gender bias in it, added a newer question about which candidate you would rather have to your home for dinner. On that one, Trump bested Clinton by a statistically insignificant single percentage point. So there’s that.

Now then, for those of us who know we will, in all likelihood, neither have a beer with, nor bring home for dinner, either of the candidates, how about that nuclear codes question?

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/06/2016 - 10:09 am.

    Have a Beer With Trump?

    I think not. He’s the kind of guy who wouldn’t let you get a word in edgewise, hit on a waitress in the crudest way imaginable, then stick you with the check and claim you invited him, so you have to pay.

    No, thanks, I’ll just stay home and have a beer by myself.

    • Submitted by Bob Petersen on 10/07/2016 - 08:31 am.

      If You Listen To Others…

      they say that Trump actually is one of the most thoughtful and respectful people to sit down with. Too many people are caught up in the persona. Politicians are no different. There is something different to them when they are on camera, no matter what side of the aisle they are on.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/07/2016 - 09:43 am.


        I have heard enough about Donald Trump’s business dealings to know that I would keep my hand on my wallet any time I came near him.

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 10/06/2016 - 12:17 pm.

    Don’t stay home

    The irresponsible American will take refuge in their lack of courage and not vote. You have to choose between the imperfect and the truly awful. You can do it.

    Vote for Clinton.

  3. Submitted by Thomas Eckhardt on 10/06/2016 - 03:02 pm.


    An organizer once told me that people maintain 2 kinds of relationships, personal and business/professional. Personal relations include family, friends and are people you trust. You don’t have that same level of trust for others. Politicians try to get you to include them in the personal category even though they aren’t. Thus the likability issue is important because it measures how successful the politician is in fooling the people into trusting them.

  4. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/06/2016 - 04:33 pm.


    Beer is a lot more real to most voters than are nuclear codes.
    Most voters have lived their whole lives under a threat of nuclear war — it’s just part of life.

  5. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 10/06/2016 - 11:06 pm.

    Remember Cuban missile crisis

    We are living in a time where I dare say that most Americans voting this year were not alive or if they were old enough to remember the Cuban missile crisis. I remember that day as well as I remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard President Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas.

    The Cuban missile crisis occurred a little more than one year before President Kennedy’s assassination. I was not yet a teenager, but I can never forget how that day what it was like to look into the abyss -the abyss of nuclear war, the end of the world. I can’t help but wonder how a President Trump might deal with such a crisis. I can’t help but wonder if any of us would be alive today if he or man like him had been President in 1962?

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