Newscasts continue to be filled with references to polling numbers that suggest President Trump and his policies are deeply unpopular, and that the American people overwhelmingly oppose the actions taken by America’s 45th president during his first 100 days in office. In all these stories, news outlets continue to reference traditional polling to measure voter sentiment about Mr. Trump. But this demonstrates their continued refusal to try to understand the priorities of main street Americans and, more importantly, the people who wanted Donald J. Trump to be president and continue to support him.
Almost everyone in the mainstream press wrongly predicted the 2016 election outcome. Months later, the media doesn’t seem to have learned much from its mistakes. While Mr. Trump’s critics recoil at his scattershot executive orders and decry every action his administration takes as “unprecedented” and “terrifying,” his core supporters are cheering the fulfillment of nearly all of the major campaign promises that won him their votes — building a border wall, shrinking the federal bureaucracy, reducing regulations, restricting immigration, putting America first economically, replacing Obamacare, and the list goes on.
We saw the impact of relying too heavily on “big data” in the 2016 presidential election cycle. Mr. Trump’s greatest source of support was non-traditional voters who turned out in droves. Those same populations continue to celebrate his unorthodox actions now, even while still being under-counted in traditional polls.
To understand Trump supporters, one must first understand that they are not part of the traditional system, they typically do not engage in polls, and they actively work to protect the very data that polls rely on. As a result, polls that show widespread opposition to the president’s policies and actions are inherently flawed in their methodology, because they do not include a significant population that would drastically alter the results. The first question typically asked in polls is whether or not the subject consents to participate in the poll. Since most Trump supporters are inherently skeptical of providing personal data, they decline to participate, so the polls that media sources cite do not include the very population that would reflect the support that these media sources say doesn’t exist.
A deeper understanding of demographics and demographic patterns requires more than simply entering and analyzing data points. The reason Kellyanne Conway was so successful, and could arguably be considered the Trump campaign’s MVP, is because she understood that, even as a pollster, polling is not about collecting data sets; it is about understanding people.
As a network news producer for 10 years, I had the opportunity to travel all over the country getting to meet people and hear their stories. Sometimes I encountered them during good times for them and their families. More often it was at times of great tragedy — as they fled wildfires ravaging their town, as hurricanes and floodwaters forced them into the attics of their houses, and, in some cases, as their family members were taken from them in some of the most gruesome and horrific ways one could imagine. When you have a chance to see people at their best, and at their worst, you develop a deep understanding of human beings that polls can rarely replicate.
To successfully cover this White House, reporters need to stop relying on approval polls and begin engaging directly with the American people. Donald Trump won the White House because he understood that he had the support of a huge swath of America far removed from the D.C. and New York news studios, despite that support not being reflected in election polls.
Reporters who want to increase their credibility with the American public would be well served not to sound smug when they see that a poll shows no one in America likes Mr. Trump, and instead realize that polls don’t always paint the full picture. Arrogance and ignorance rendered their ivory tower reporting wrong in 2016. That arrogance continues to leave journalists dumbfounded that Mr. Trump is able to garner crowds in the thousands at his events. Today’s journalists simply can’t believe that they could be wrong about their ability to discern or dictate the will of the people. To really understand the wave of support that pushed the Trump campaign forward, and continues to greet his actions with celebration, not disdain, members of the media must get outside the Beltway and on the ground in the streets of America.
The fact is that no poll regarding Mr. Trump is going to be able to accurately reflect his support or opposition. And that is infuriating the ruling elite both in media and politics. While scientific methods work with populations that are engaged in the system and respond to polling queries, the analysis breaks down with groups that are not traditional voters. These voters have a champion now, for better or worse, and that demographic feels empowered for the first time in over 30 years.
• Brian J. Wise is the managing partner of Wise Public Affairs and a veteran network news producer for ABC News, CBS News and Fox News Channel.