If you pay any attention to the media this campaign season, one thing you would hear is how unpopular both presumptive nominees of the two parties are. The latest poll numbers of Clinton and Trump’s favorable and unfavorable are as follows:
Hillary Clinton: 43% Favorable 55% Unfavorable
Donald Trump: 29% Favorable 70% Unfavorable
According to the media, these are the worst poll numbers of recent presidential candidates in our history. As horrible as those numbers look, the more important questions are what do the numbers mean? How do they arrive at these numbers? Does it really mean that 224 million and 176 million out of the current 320 million Americans hate Trump and Clinton respectively?
It is a common knowledge that the pollsters do not call everyone in the country and that even if that were possible, not everyone has had personal interactions with the candidates to warrant an opinion. As such, the real issue here is not how polls are conducted or the mechanism of how they arrive at the numbers. Rather, the critical issue is how does the public form an opinion of public officials they don’t know on a personal level? This is done through media exposure and the candidate's public appearances and accomplishments. These officials also seek to improve their image by using publicity experts and handlers who pitch favorable news stories to News and Social media outlets. The News Media, in their role, as “watchdog” of democracy, can report and investigate; or not, the activities of public officials, (both objective and subjective) and also provide the platform for vigorous discussion of issues during campaign season. Given that the media’s coverage of the election season is what drives the perception of the public, how has that affected the polls in the current political season? Let’s look at the coverage of the two presumptive nominees by the media.
Donald Trump: As a well-known celebrity and someone who have worked in the entertainment media for a long time, Mr. Trump is very media savvy. As a result of this, he has taken an unprecedented advantage of the media during his presidential run. He has essentially funded his primary campaign by virtue of free media. Mr. Trump frequently calls into news shows and Cable News outlets carries live coverages of his campaign activities more than any other candidates. With this wide-ranging exposure in the media, one can safely surmise that his general persona is well known to the general public. He is not only well known, he cultivates media attention more than any political candidates in recent memory. He is constantly commenting on issues, whether asked or not, there’s a treasure trove of his statement everywhere. For this reason, the public probably knows Mr. Trump more than perhaps any previous candidate and it would be safe to a reasonable degree of certainty to say that public opinions of him are well informed.
Hillary Clinton: Mrs. Clinton has also been on the public stage for a long time and in various roles. Starting with her early days as staff attorney during President Nixon’s impeachment hearing, She has held other public offices such as First lady of Arkansas, First lady of the United States, New York's junior United States Senator, and her last public office as United States Secretary of State. Over these periods, her public approval ratings have been up and down. But unlike Donald Trump, whose public opinion is based on mostly on people’s aversion to his racist and xenophobic message and which is unpopular across party/ideological lines, Clinton’s Unfavorability is based mostly on the activities generated by her adversaries who object to her political positions and policies. In her first elected position as New York Senator, she enjoyed above average approval ratings for a senator peaking at 58%. That went up to 65% as she became the Secretary of State in 2009. By the time she left office in January 2013, her approval rating according to WSJ/NBC News poll was 69% with 25% disapproval.
What that rating mean is that she had the approval of most Democrats and Independents and even some Republicans. These opinions are based on the objective review of her performance as provided by the media. Other than the Republicans who do not like her because of her “liberal” views and policies, there is no widespread opinion of personal misconduct unbecoming of a public official. Unlike Trump, her views are within the mainstream of political thought. In fact, her views were considered slightly right of center by Republicans to the point that, earlier in Obama's administration, most of them wished President Obama would emulate her. The small minority of Democrats who have problems with her position think she is slightly left of center.
That, of course, was before the Republicans tried to dampen her high favorability rating the moment it became clear that she will run for president. By their own admission, the House Select Committee on Benghazi was set up for the sole reason of generating hatred towards her. A few days ago, the result of the two-year investigation was released and they could not find anything new or any wrongdoing by her. Although they were unsuccessful with their core mission, they succeeded in sowing doubt among the public about her entire time and body of work as Secretary of State. Note that Benghazi happened in September 2012 and 8 exhaustive investigations by bipartisan House and Senate Committees, have concluded there’s was nothing she could have done to avoid the attack. In spite of Benghazi and the investigations, she still left office with almost 70% approval ratings.
But the House select Committee’s intention was to destroy her image. So when they were unsuccessful with the investigation, they started focusing on her email which eventually found traction with the News media. Now, I won’t defend her actions to set up a server and bypass government email. That was foolish of her even though she explained her rationale. While I don’t approve of her action, I understand why she did it. She was not the first to use personal email for work. Three secretaries of state before she did. But they did not set up a server. I won’t bore you with the minutia and the intricacies of how the State Dept. is still using antiquated systems of the late 80s. The debate is still ongoing with the FBI investigation on whether there was any exposure to classified materials as a result of her use of private email and server. Those who understand the laws governing that has said it is unlikely to result in a criminal indictment for her. I am persuaded to believe that because if you indict her, you will have to do so for Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice who predated her in the use of personal email. News media have reported that the FBI is convinced that her server was not hacked even though State Dept. servers were.
The reason I have gone into a little detail above is first, to show that, contrary to what you hear today from news media, her unfavorable ratings have not always been this high and that getting it this high is a manufactured job by her political opponents. But I also wanted to show that she did not do anything personally to offend the 30% of Americans (approximately 96 million) who have an unfavorable opinion of her now than when she left office as Secretary of State. The media is fond of asking people if they trust her. They ask if she is “trustworthy”. This is my biggest pet peeves about polling. Participatory democracy is a good thing but asking uninformed individuals to give opinions and using that to extrapolate the national poll or portions of it does a disservice to the nation. If you believe the polls, 55% (approximately 176 million) of Americans do not trust her or think she is trustworthy. Given our divided political system, that’s a very disingenuous way to interpret the polls.
She has been in the public eye for more than 40 years now. Other than her political opponents' witch hunts, Mrs. Clinton has never been accused of any personal or misconduct. Her husband has and unfortunately, her detractors has decided that Bill Clinton's extra-marital problem is Hillary Clinton's fault. That is a ridiculous charge to make against the person on the receiving end of marital infidelity. But, in our very divided political environment, people are irrational and are blindly opposing her for no justifiable reason. She has served and advocated for families and children all her life. Yet, the media conduct a poll asking people, whether they trust someone they really don’t know and have no personal basis to make that decision. Given her public advocacy, most of the poll respondents are beneficiaries of her life’s work as an advocate for their welfare. Most of the young voters in the Democratic Party’s primaries, who voted overwhelmingly for Bernie Sanders, believing that, as some say, that “Hillary Clinton does not speak for them”, say so out of sheer ignorance. Before these young ones were born, she fought hard to help enact legislation that created the Children’s Health Insurance that now help more than 8 million kids.
In the final analysis, our interpretation of polls, its construction and use, needs to be radically re-examined. Its use by the news media is an aberration of what it is meant to explain. Because of its inability to be nuanced, the news media, by what it chooses to report or not report, by determining what political agenda to emphasize or not emphasize, and by the way they structure the questions they ask on polls, they are essentially telling people what to believe or not believe. Therefore, political polling by the news media is the very definition of confirmation bias - feeding people inadequate and biased info then turns around and ask them questions that prove or support the intent of your coverage.
But perhaps the biggest injustice the media has done is their penchant for classifying every incident as the “most”, “biggest”, “largest”, “highest”, in their reporting. So in this most polarized environment that they help create, both Clinton and Trump are reported to have the “highest” unfavorable ratings ever of any presidential candidate nominees. That maybe so but where that reporting misses the mark is that never before, has there been a Party’s presidential nominee who was so subjected to bad and unfavorable coverage as Hillary Clinton. And never before has there been a Party’s presidential nominee who was so offensive to minorities and who was so racist, xenophobic and misogynistic in our history like Donald Trump. Viewed from that perspective, it is not really a surprise that both candidates Unfavorability are so high in the minds of the electorate. But even more perplexing about the media’s reporting and use of Favorable/Unfavorability ratings is that there were 16 other candidates in the Republican primaries who had high Favorability and low Unfavorability ratings than Mr. Trump. Yet the public did not choose them. And on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley had better favorability ratings than Secretary Clinton, and they pick her.
In the end, something is wrong when the same public that supposedly tell pollsters that they don’t like one candidate over the other, but then turn around and pick the “un-liked” candidate over the “liked” one. That dichotomy is both an indictment on the tactics employed by the media pollsters and a testament that their obsession with these manufactured ratings does not determine who wins or who loses the election.