What makes the public bickering over scientific versus unscientific polls interesting isn’t the questions about methodology, it’s how it relates to the duty to tell the truth. Which political actors have a duty to tell the truth?
The public accepts (in practice if not in theory) that candidates have no duty to tell the truth. Politicians are liars, we have no expectations of integrity in them, they’re doing everything they can to win an election, so they lie. Trump can get away with touting his big wins in unscientific online polls for that reason, and also for the reason that he really might not understand the methodological differences. Someone could explain it to him, but who’s going to dare harsh his buzz about a poll he’s winning 99/1? On the other end of the spectrum, the public thinks news reporters do have a duty to tell the truth even though they violate that duty in a thousand subtle and sometimes unsubtle ways. In between are the great mass of opinionated commentators. Some of them feel their first duty is to the truth and only secondarily to the cause; some put their duty to the cause above the truth, sometimes to so great an extreme that they turn into, well, Sean Hannity.
How about Trump spokesman Jason Miller, though? What duty does he have to tell the truth about the fact that Trump has lost every scientific poll after the debate? Including this new one released within the last few hours by Gallup:
Clinton won by 19 points on who was more likable, 32 points on who appeared more presidential, and 36 points on who had better command of the issues. Miller doesn’t have to acknowledge all of that, but he’s a political pro who surely does understand and agree with Todd’s point that unscientific surveys are worthless. How should he handle that?
He could have done what good spokesmen always do and moved the conversation towards more favorable ground for his client. He might have shrugged off the polls as unimportant (“there are two debates to come and the only poll that matters is on Election Day”), said that Trump did what he wanted to do by painting Clinton as the embodiment of the status quo, and pointed to the next debate as a potential gamechanger. No lies in any of that. All of it is defensible. But because, I guess, the word came down from on high today that Trump’s performance is to be defended at all costs, he’s stuck pushing this. The debate was rigged, the unscientific polls were right, all nonsense he’s forced to sell because the man-child he works for can’t concede that his unfocused preparation for the debate wasn’t so smart in hindsight.
Here’s a question. Assuming that Miller is a conservative (he was Ted Cruz’s campaign’s spokesman this year before he was Trump’s), does he have any duty to tell the truth for the good of conservatism? Ben Shapiro:
Facts Matter More Than Feelings. This principle is particularly close to my heart, for obvious reasons. I believe that facts matter. But for the last several months, with Trump fading in the polls, many Trump supporters have begun pretending that scientific polls are worthless, and unscientific polls are reliable indicators of support levels. In 2012, I took part in the “unskewing” of polls – I looked at the D+ breakdowns in polls, and then tried to rejigger the numbers based on a more even reflection of the electorate. That was an exercise in foolishness; the polls were right, and I was wrong. But now, there’s a whole new cottage industry of poll trutherism, far beyond unskewing: now we’re pretending that opt-in online polls are the equivalent of scientific polls. Why? Because we don’t like the scientific polls…
Then there are the Trumpian conspiracy theories. Since the debate, we’ve heard that Hillary Clinton used hand signals to cue Lester Holt; the Florida GOP tweeted out an Infowars story about Hillary being wired for sound. Every Trump failure has a conspiracy theory to support it, and those conspiracy stories are now being taken mainstream by some Republicans.
Truth doesn’t stop being true just because the truth is that your favored candidate is doing poorly.
Millions of people on Miller’s own side who don’t follow polls closely and don’t know whom to trust are watching garbage like this and concluding from it that unscientific polls really are as good as the real thing. They’ll carry that lesson with them after Trump’s political career is over and Miller has moved on to other clients. Whether he realizes it or not, he’s encouraging his own fellow travelers to be stupider and more poorly informed because it serves his interests short-term even though it’s poisonous to his cause long-term. And as I say, he doesn’t really have to do it. He could have deflected the question in a hundred ways. It’s one thing to have no duty to tell the truth. It’s another to have an affirmative duty to lie.
And like Max Boot said: No one forced him to take the job.