by Philip Bump
One of the interesting aspects of the Trump era is that those who cover him are generally hard-pressed to guess what they might end up writing about on any given day. Perhaps it will be the policy issue his administration is advancing. Or, more often, it will be a thing he saw on TV and about which he decided to offer his thoughts.
And so Tuesday morning dawned, and President Trump decided, for some reason, to re-litigate the 2016 presidential debates.
“As most people are aware, according to the Polls, I won EVERY debate, including the three with Crooked Hillary Clinton,” Trump said on Twitter, “despite the fact that in the first debate, they modulated the sound on me, and got caught.”
The mention of “modulated sound” is a dip into the archive of Trump classics. As soon as Trump came offstage after his first debate against Hillary Clinton, he complained of audio issues that weren’t apparent to people watching on television. The commission that organizes the debates later acknowledged that there was an issue with his microphone that “affected the sound level in the debate hall,” whatever that means, but there is as usual no suggestion that anything intentionally nefarious — or particularly damaging — took place.
More important is the insistence that precedes that conspiratorial claim. Trump insists, here in the year of our Lord 2019, that he won all three debates “according to the Polls.” According to the Polls, Trump lost all three debates, by varying margins. According to CNN, Clinton won the three debates, according to 62 percent, 57 percent and 52 percent of those polled, respectively. NBC News polling had Clinton winning with 52 percent, 44 percent and 46 percent of support from respondents (polls that included about a fifth of respondents each time who said neither candidate won).
The “polls” to which Trump is referring are probably the same ones he cited after losing that first debate (which, remember, was in part a function of his faulty mic except also he won the debate). At the time, Trump pointed to useless online surveys like the one typically hosted at the Drudge Report or to little surveys posted on local news sites. These surveys are to polling what playing solitaire is to gambling in Vegas. If you try hard enough, you’ll probably be able to get the outcome you want.
It’s not clear why exactly Trump revived this issue at this moment. (Journalist Matt Gertz, who compares Trump’s tweets to what’s airing on Fox News, suspects it might have been a segment on MSNBC.) It’s interesting that he did, though, because it reinforces a broader issue in his presidency.
Trump is incapable of accepting that most Americans don’t like him.
This isn’t really a controversial claim. Since Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015, there has been about a month in which the percentage of Americans who said they viewed him unfavorably was at or under 50 percent. That month came during the transition period after Trump won the election and ended shortly after he took office. It’s worth noting that, during this period, more people still viewed him unfavorably than viewed him favorably, by an average of six percentage points.
Trump’s denial that he lost the debates is likely rooted in his inability to accept that perhaps he might actually have done so — or, at least, his inability to acknowledge that fact. But such denials are by no means limited to his performance in 2016. In an interview with Fox News’s Tucker Carlson that aired on Monday night, Trump also claimed that approval polls showed him excelling — or at least they would if polls were fair.
“A poll just came out today I’m at 54 or 55, and they do say you can add 10 to whatever poll I have, okay?” Trump told Carlson. “And I never get good press. I mean, I haven’t had a good story.” He reiterated a claim he’s made in the past that 93 percent of the stories about him are negative. (Trump claimed that number had “come out the other day,” but it appears to stem from a study released in 2017.)
Trump using Fox News to claim that he never gets good press prompted a number of irony detectors to short out and explode.
But it’s that “54 or 55” and the ancillary claim that “you can add 10 to whatever poll” that’s important. Generally when Trump touts approval ratings over 50 percent, he’s citing polling from Rasmussen Reports. He’s trumpeted polling at or above 50 percent at least nine times — again, because he wants to give the impression that a majority of the country supports him. All of those polls were from Rasmussen, whose results have been better for him than the RealClearPolitics average on more than 99 percent of the days of Trump’s presidency.
Trump’s approval rating from Rasmussen right now, though, is only 47 percent. He hasn’t been above 50 percent since mid-June.
The president has claimed in the past that his approval polls should have 10 points tacked on. He’s claimed that this is meant to compensate for Trump supporters who are too intimidated to tell pollsters they actually support his presidency. (He made this claim in 2016, too, though national polls that year ended up being accurate.) To make up for this purported effect, he said last year, you should just take everyone who says they’re undecided and add them to the “approve” column.
This, I probably don’t need to tell you, is not how it works.
He’s also previously made this claim that the media is tamping down his approval numbers. In May, he claimed that his approval rating would top 70 percent if it weren’t for the media. There’s a sense in which that’s true: If the media weren’t accurately reporting what Trump did and, instead, the only coverage of his administration came from, say, interviews on Fox News, it’s possible that a vast majority of Americans would say he was doing a perfectly fine job. Instead, the media reports on what’s happening and Americans make up their minds accordingly.
Again, though, this all loops back to the central tension of Trump’s presidency. He wants to be popular and wants America to see him as popular. That he’s not — and that he’s demonstrably not — is a constant frustration.
So sometimes he’ll wake up on a Tuesday and decide that the world should know that actually he won those debates that he lost. Just another day in Trump world.
Philip Bump is a correspondent for The Washington Post based in New York.