A story in The Hill titled, “Poll: Half of Republicans would back postponing 2020 election if Trump proposed it,” made a huge splash on Thursday morning. Jonah Goldberg tweeted a meme of a guy jumping out a window, and joked about Trumpism being “not a personality cult.” Joe Scarborough tweeted that “The party of Reagan is sick and apparently beyond repair. This poll, if accurate, is a frightening snapshot.”
For those of us who viewed Obama fandom as a cult of personality, this looked like rank hypocrisy. And, indeed, the first part of the story is that Trump fans are far too willing to cast aside first principles in order to support “Dear Leader.”
There has always been a strong authoritarian streak on the American right. And those who are worried about Trump’s strongman tendencies have argued that the real danger would come in the form of a national emergency—as a pretext for postponing elections. You might recall that, in the wake of 9-11, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani floated the idea of extending his term by postponing his successors’ inauguration. The New York Times called that a “dangerous idea.”
So I’m sympathetic to the fact that there was immediate pushback to this (in fact, I re-tweeted those who were pushing back). The trouble is that the second part of this story has to do with a media that is all too keen to hype this sort of provocative anti-Trump story.
One of the reasons Trump won—one of the reasons his voters trust him and not us—is that we don’t always shoot straight with the public, either. And while liberal media bias is the easiest to demagogue, business demands for eyeballs and clicks constitute a bigger problem.
Trump is catnip for readers (whether they like him or lump him), and we work in a business that requires us to take stories that should be a level “3” and hype them to be level “8” or “9.” That’s because we need page views and ratings and buzz.
It’s worth revisiting how this story went viral.
In recent years, The Hill, once a reliable, if insidery, Capital Hill newspaper has morphed into a page-view-generating behemoth. This story about Trump fans is a prime example of why that’s the case. This was actually a Washington Post poll, but The Hill got all the clicks by “aggregating” it. Doesn’t that strike you as unusual? The Hill’s version was much shorter, and didn’t fully inform readers that this was essentially what might be termed a “push” poll.
Okay, to be technical, a push poll isn’t really a poll. It’s a fake poll meant to deliver information under the guise of being a legitimate survey. That’s not what this was, though it essentially accomplished the same task of spreading disinformation.
This was a scientific poll, but one that asked a very hypothetical question. What is more, respondents would arrive at this shocking conclusion only after having been given a series of other hypothetical scenarios that evoked concerns about voter fraud.
As Business Insider’s Josh Barro’s observed, the poll “was designed to produce alarming result by priming respondents first with questions about vote fraud.” Upon discovering this back-story, Commentary’s John Podhoretz confessed, “I'm now embarrassed by how quickly I responded to the original news.”
He shouldn’t beat himself up too much. Even if we cut this number in half, meaning that a quarter of Republicans would back postponing the 2020 elections, it would be scandalous and disturbing. And, indeed, the actual findings of this survey—the findings that were not hyped—are troublesome: “Nearly half of Republicans (47 percent) believe that Trump won the popular vote …Larger fractions believe that millions of illegal immigrants voted (68 percent) and that voter fraud happens somewhat or very often (73 percent).”
Still, what we’re left with is this: While it’s bad news that Republicans would (under any circumstances) entertain the idea of postponing an election, it’s not as bad as it seems. Ironically, though, the media have once again undermined their own legitimacy—and (like Trump often does) overhyped a story that would have been just fine on its own. This is how Trump wins.