Donald Trump loves polls when he is winning. He hates polls when he is losing. This week, the Republican presidential nominee even gave a hearty thanks on Twitter to unscientific online polls with results that have little to no resemblance to the public's actual opinion.
Trump's obsession with polls and his tight race against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has sparked a perhaps unprecedented focus on the latest numbers in the 2016 election. The percentage of Americans supporting Trump regularly trends on Twitter, news outlets send push notifications about the latest figures and FiveThirtyEight, perhaps the best-known poll-aggregator/election-forecaster, just set a record for visitor traffic during Monday's opening presidential debate. We're all on the pollercoaster it seems.
This week, Public Policy Polling, a firm that does private polling for Democratic candidates and surveys for the public at large, released it's most recent national presidential poll, grabbing a number of headlines. It was one of the first surveys to drop after the debate and it showed Clinton's performance had seemingly caused a bump in support.
The firm has also earned some notoriety for polling silly subjects, including whether voters preferred gorilla-turned-meme Harambe or Trump. But don't be fooled by the silliness, PPP is a serious shop that correctly called every state in the 2012 election.
International Business Times chatted this week with Jim Williams, polling analyst at PPP, about the 2016 race and what we should expect in the final month before Election Day. What follows is the conversation, edited and condensed.
IBT: How busy are you right now?
JW: Very busy. Any job in politics you know Labor Day is kind of the traditional time when things start to get really intense. That’s definitely been true for us.
So for the public polls that you’re putting out, with all the attention being put on polls and the "horse race" – is that on your mind when you’re working?
Certainly, that’s the name of the game in this business. You're only as good as your last number.
With this election in particular, since you brought up 2012 – what in 2016 has proven different? What has been the major takeaway on your end?
I think the rise of Donald Trump has confounded people throughout this election cycle. And we were seeing it in the polls starting in May of 2015 and it can be nerve-racking at first. I think a lot of professional political observers viewed Donald Trump as sort of a joke for a long time even after he started leading in the polls.
So you're always wondering, as it goes on, as he continues to lead, is this real? Because our numbers kept showing that it was. Of course, it turned out that it was real in the sense that he was able to secure the nomination.
What's the biggest reaction you’ve seen to a poll you put out?
Well, we did one last year where there was a guy called Deez Nuts running for president. He was actually a kid out of Iowa, he filed with the FEC like a real presidential campaign. We decided to put him in one of our polls partly because it was funny, but also partly because Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have their own problems with favorability ratings.
He ended up getting 7 percent nationally. The internet went wild with it.
The funny questions you do, it seems like there was a bit more behind the Deez Nuts one. You guys did one involving Harambe, you did one on "is Joe Flacco elite." Is there a mix of reasoning, for why you do this – are some just for fun, while some have the deeper meaning that you mentioned?
There's three reasons really. Sometimes we do it just for our own amusement, because we can. Because you have to entertain yourself sometimes.
But also we have a robust following on Twitter, on the internet, on our website, and we do solicit questions, partly to keep our ear to the ground. You know, if we're doing a poll in Pennsylvania we've got political junkies in every state that know even more about what’s going on than we would. … You'll get people saying, "Hey, they’re blocking this bill in the legislature right now and it’s starting to become a big deal." Maybe we throw that on the poll. But then you also get your goofballs who say, "Oh, poll Harambe! Poll Harambe!"
And one other big reason why we try to do fun stuff like this, especially now, is politics – people get so emotional about it. Especially these days with social media, people squabbling on Facebook. We really think it's good an important to do fun, light funny questions when we can so it’s not all conflict, all fighting, all the time as we head into the election.
Are you eagerly awaiting the election to be over, is Nov. 9 going to be a great day for you? Or are you going to be a little bit disappointed because the most important season for you is over?
It’s probably a mix of all those things. We've got a lot of work to do in the next six weeks or so.
Election day is obviously a big day because our work is going to be judged against what happens in reality, along with every other pollster. That’s a big deal.
But also I've learned having been through several cycles here, polling always continues and there will always be more things to poll on.
We see the top-line figures, the most important figures in a poll, but what are the things that the average person might be missing deeper down?
People ask me all the time, they go, "Hey, I saw Hillary was up by five and this other poll had Trump up by one, how do I know which one is right?" Well, as a general rule if you’re looking at two different polls and you see two different things – the truth is probably somewhere in between.
I think also if you’ve got two polls and you’re wondering which one is more right, I always like to look at how the demographics of the poll are weighted. Sometimes I’ll look at a poll and say, "Wow, that doesn’t seem right, let me see who they sampled." And I’ll look and it’ll be like half the poll will be people over 65.
It's always important to look at the demographics in the poll of who was sampled and see if you can find out if that makes sense for what the projections are going to be for voter turnout on Election Day.
As we inch mercifully ever-closer to Election Day, what's something that's standing out to you, is there a trend you're seeing, something people should be watching for in the last 40 days or so?
I think generally speaking, with regards to the presidential race, it has been close the whole time.
What we've seen throughout this year is that the polls look a lot like they did in 2012. The Democrats had a 3 to 4 point lead throughout and that never really changed and that’s sort of what ended happening on Election Day. And I think that’s going to happen again. I don't think there's going to be a blowout by Hillary.
You know, there were a lot of liberals when Donald Trump secured the nomination that said, "Oh man, this is going to be a walk, no way people are going to vote for this guy. Hillary is going to win by double digits." I just don't think that's going to happen. The country is too divided.
People are going to vote for their party above all else or vote against the party they don't like above all else. That's why I think the election is going to be close no matter what.