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Polling in 2023: Keep the Customer Satisfied

Maybe it is the influence of the "news"-as-profit-center Fox "News." Maybe it is because people don't care much about boring old horse-race polls this far from an actual election. In any event, there are very few organizations who want to pay for a poll that causes everyone to say "Eh." We assume that keeping the customer happy is why we're seeing a lot of polls right now that seem specifically designed to produce an eye-popping, headline-generating result.

As a case in point, we give you the latest from YouGov/The Economist. We assume this is self-evident, but just in case, YouGov actually designs and runs the polls, while The Economist pays the bills. And mostly, this poll affirms things everyone already knows, like Joe Biden is unpopular, Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis are even more unpopular, the popular vote for next year's presidential race is a toss-up, and people think the economy isn't good enough.

Since very little of this is news, the finding that got all the attention is this one: 91% of Americans think that Joe Biden got personal financial gain from being president. On its surface, this seems pretty bad, right? It suggests that the Republicans' "Biden Crime Family" narrative is taking hold, and that the vast majority of Americans think the President is corrupt. If that was true, it would be pretty hard for him to get reelected.

But if you think about it for more than a fraction of a second, that result doesn't really pass the smell test. It is unusual for 91% of the American people to agree on anything, particularly something that seems so damning for a leading political figure. The first thought we often have in these situations is: "How would we have answered the question, if we had been in the polling sample?" And the answer here is that we would have been in the 91%. This is not because we think Biden is hopelessly corrupt, but because we know that the President of the United States draws an annual salary of $400,000, along with another $169,000 for various expenses. That sure seems like a financial benefit to us.

Looking more closely at the results, it becomes even clearer that the number is basically meaningless. YouGov actually asked about each of the last four presidents, and allowed respondents to choose degrees (e.g., "benefited a great deal," "benefited a fair amount," etc.). The 91% is an aggregate of every respondent who answered anything other than "benefited not at all."

In Biden's case, the breakdown is 43% for "a great deal," 21% for "a fair amount," 12% for "not sure," 15% for "not much" and 9% for "not at all." Readers will likely take notice of one, and perhaps two, rather significant problems here. The first is that "not sure" is not the same as "yes, he benefited," and so that 12% should not be included in the 91%. The second is that who can possibly know what these categories actually mean? More than half a million dollars in salary and benefits is a lot of money, and so maybe that equates to "a great deal" of benefit. On the other hand, it's just his salary, and every president gets the same. So maybe it's "not much."

Now let's take a look at the other three presidents. Since all the headlines include the 91% number (which was emphasized in the YouGov/Economist press release), we'll give the total numbers for everyone. George W. Bush's total number was 95%, Barack Obama's total number was 94% and Donald Trump's total number was 78%. If we are interested in being more precise, and cutting out all those "not sure" responses, then we have Biden at 79%, Trump at 67%, Obama at 82% and Bush at 79%. In short, however people were understanding the questions and the categorizations, Biden is not an outlier; he's basically batting par for the course. Certainly, there's no evidence that he's been fatally wounded by the Biden Crime Family bit.

And finally, let's look at the real eye-popper, which is the Trump number. The "not at all" for Biden is 9%, for Obama is 6% and for Bush is 5%. For Trump it is an incredible 22%. This is nothing short of lunacy. Trump collected the same fat salary all the other presidents did (and he did NOT donate it, contrary to his promises to do so). Trump has sold books and other stuff, just as Bush and Obama have. Trump has done paid speaking gigs, just as Bush and Obama have. But only Trump has charged the federal government tens of millions of dollars for the use of his hotel properties.

We all know what's going on here, namely that the Trumpist respondents have either convinced themselves that the millions charged to the government is fake news, or is just smart business, or has nothing to do with the presidency. Whatever the case may be, the real story of the poll is not that Republicans have succeeded in selling the "Biden is a crook" shtick, but instead have done a pretty good job of convincing the base that Trump isn't a crook. We'll see how respondents feel when and if Trump becomes a felon. But for now, the point is, if you see a shocking polling result, particularly right now, you should take a closer look, because it probably is just smoke and mirrors. (Z)

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