Every four years amid the presidential election, another kind of popularity contest gets underway, one that selects the new members of the professional peanut gallery of pundits, writers, and (in the modern era, anyway) social media stars who, through persistence or dumb luck, find themselves in the odd and delicate position of influencing the public discourse. And with all of its idiosyncrasies, 2016 has ushered in a new kind of thought leader to the mainstream: the polling truther.
By Bill Mitchell’s account, this campaign season has been good for Bill Mitchell—and he hasn’t even had to leave the comfort of his home. Mitchell, who is 56 years old, is a resident of Charlotte, North Carolina. He looks like a real-estate agent from Mars with his gleaming silver hair, bushy black eyebrows, and unusually youthful face. An executive recruiter by trade, it’s his hobby of internet trolling that has turned him into an unlikely conservative star.
In the last year, Mitchell has amassed a following of tens of thousands of Twitter followers, nearly 70,000 and counting, who come for his insistence that, despite what nearly every poll says, Donald Trump will be elected president of the United States. And as of two months ago, he’s taking his message outside of social media, to online radio with a show on YourVoiceRadio.com, which he says has as many as several thousand listeners per episode.
“Imagine polls don’t exist,” Mitchell tweeted on Aug. 7, “Show me evidence Hillary is winning?”
According to Mitchell, and to the thousands of Trump supporters who hang on his words, mainstream polling is skewed to disenfranchise the “silent majority” of Americans who favor the Republican nominee’s ideas.
For proof that it’s all made up, Mitchell says you don’t have to look further than the size of the crowds each candidate commands. While Trump fills stadiums designed for monster truck rallies and rock concerts, Clinton tends to address audiences of a more modest size. A beltway pundit might call that an enthusiasm gap or simply a matter of staging, but Mitchell calls it a conspiracy.
And he’s not alone. There’s also Longroom.com, a website whose sole mission is to “remove the bias in the polls.” And then there’s Breitbart, the pro-Trump propaganda site.
Breitbart went so far as to run its own poll, although things didn’t go as well as they hoped. Breitbart’s screeching headline about their results boasted that—factoring in Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein—Trump leads with 42 percent and Clinton trails with 37.
But further down in the text of the article Breitbart admits that, in the two-way race between Trump and Clinton, their results were reversed. The perils of Breitbart’s polling myopia were evident in its coverage of Paul Ryan’s primary, when they claimed the House Speaker’s nine-point lead against his opponent, whom he decisively defeated in the end by more than 60 percent, was proof that he had plummeted.
In the Real Clear Politics average of polls from Aug. 1 through Aug. 15, Clinton leads Trump by 6.7 points. She’s leading even in historically Republican states like Georgia. She isn’t far behind in Texas, which hasn’t voted for a Democrat in the presidential election since 1976. But Mitchell and his cohorts claim that the polling methods favored by mainstream outfits like Monmouth and Quinnipiac are flawed, and purposely so. “All the polls you hear out there are basically just garbage,” he told me when reached by phone Monday.
He cited as proof of this belief that supposedly random samples of Americans always seem to include more self-identified Democrats than Republicans, which he says is on purpose.
But those polls tend to survey an equal number of registered Democrats and Republicans, it’s just that when those people answer the phone, they sometimes informally switch their party affiliation. Pollsters are quick to point out that the phenomenon doesn’t mean the method is unscientific, but that voters are fickle.
In response to criticism from people like Mitchell, Monmouth University’s Patrick Murray recently wrote that his sample was “evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans” but the registered Republicans were more likely to say they were Democrats. “The question you should be asking yourself, in light of events over the past few weeks,” Murray said, “is why that might be so.”
Kristen Soltis Anderson, a Republican pollster (and sometimes Daily Beast contributor) said, “Recent highly publicized polling ‘misses’ [have] made it fashionable to question the accuracy of polls.” But, Anderson added, “The problem with today’s Trump ‘polling truthers’ isn’t that they have questions about the polls. Hey, the polls could be wrong en masse! It’s possible! It’s that they instead place trust in measures of Trump’s electoral standing that are absolutely bogus and meaningless. That’s not being a prudent, skeptical person; that’s complete delusion.”
Delusion isn’t new, of course, and neither is polling trutherism.
On Nov. 5, 2012, Mitt Romney’s campaign was issued a permit from the Boston Fire Department to set off fireworks from Pier 5 over Boston Harbor anytime between 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 6 and midnight Wednesday, Nov. 7.
The Republican nominee and his campaign operatives were certain they’d be in a celebratory mood around that time on Election Day, because they were as sure as Mitchell that the polls which showed President Obama winning were artificial—the product of a corrupt mainstream media working in cahoots with the Democratic establishment to pollute surveys by polling more Democrats than Republicans, skewing the results to create a false narrative.
On the ground in the days leading up to the election, they had seen enthusiasm for his message that seemed to defy the polls. During a last-minute stop in Pennsylvania, Romney watched as his supporters crowded onto a parking garage just to get a glimpse of the man they thought might be president.
In the end, there would be no fireworks over the Boston Harbor and no Romney administration, because what Romney and his operatives were so convinced of was wrong. His loss, according to what one adviser said at the time, left him “shellshocked.” Karl Rove, who believed as Romney did that the polls were bullshit, had a full-blown meltdown on Fox News the night of the Republican’s loss, clutching a whiteboard and a pen and refusing to believe what the numbers said.
But nearly four years later, Trump hasn’t learned the lesson of the Romney campaign, and neither have his fans. Instead, they’re engaging in polling trutherism on an even broader scale, using social media and fringe websites to wage a campaign of doubt on historically credible polling outfits and, less explicitly, to call into question the legitimacy of the Democratic process itself.
“The @ABC poll sample is heavy on Democrats,” Trump tweeted on June 26, after a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed him trailing Clinton, 39 to 51. “Very dishonest—why would they do that? Other polls are good!”
He added, “The ‘dirty’ poll done by @ABC @washingtonpost is a disgrace. Even they admit that many more Democrats were polled. Other polls were good.”
But Trump’s most effective messenger on this issue isn’t himself, or even on his payroll.
According to an MIT Lab study published in February, Mitchell is among the 150 most influential Twitter users when it comes to the election. He ranks number 26, ahead of Fox News host Megyn Kelly, the Speaker of House Paul Ryan, former President George W. Bush, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, to name a few.
Mitchell, by the way, does everything—including his radio show—from home.
“My Twitter feed right now gets 40 million hits a month,” he said Monday. “Forty million impressions a month. That’s what my Twitter feed gets right now. There are a lot of people that read my tweets.”
Mitchell seems pleasantly surprised and excited about his newfound, if-niche, fame. While he says his goal is to help elect Trump, whom he briefly volunteered for in North Carolina, helping to create the state operation’s social media presence, he admits that he has his personal reasons for his loyalty.
“Eventually, it’d be great if I can make a living doing that,” he said, “It’s more fun than headhunting and I’ve been a headhunter for 30 years. I’d like a new adventure.”
Mitchell would hardly be the first person this election to parlay his defense of Trump into a full-blown career, as any cable news lineup will prove.
Asked if he’d be interested in mediums outside of the internet, he said, “Sure, yeah, why not? I’ve done television appearances already. I have people that are personalities on TV right now that contact me before they’re gonna go on the show and ask me what they should say about stuff and I tell them.”
He added, “I can’t tell you who those people are.”