On Thursday morning, Donald Trump tweeted this: “I won the debate big, based on compilation of polls etc. Thank you!”
This is, in a word, false. Let me prove it.
Here are two major news organizations’ polls that sought to measure public opinion on the first general election debate between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday night in Cleveland:
1) A CNN post-debate poll showed 60% of debate watchers said Biden did a better job in the debate, while 28% said Trump did.
2) A CBS News poll of debate watchers showed 48% thought Biden won as compared to 41% who thought Trump did. The rest – 10% – called the debate a tie.
Neither of those – if I am reading them right – say that Trump won. And a “compilation” of those polls also do not say he won. They say he lost. Period.
What, then, is Trump talking about? Honest answer: I am not exactly sure.
But my best guess is that Trump is conflating actual, scientific polls – like the two I noted above – with non-scientific, Internet polls which, among other methodological flaws, allow a single person to cast as many votes as they like.
Breitbart, a strongly pro-Trump “news” site, conducts just such a poll. According to its most recent results, more than 87% of respondents said that Trump won the debate. (Who are these people? Do they represent an accurate sample of the electorate? We have no way of knowing!) There’s a similar sort of “poll” at the bottom of this AL.com article on the debate. (Of the 369,000 respondents, 52% said Trump won the debate while 48% chose Biden.)
Trump, never one to dig deep into how a poll is conducted, may have latched on numbers like the non-scientific ones being produced by Breitbart and other sites.
Or, and this is a real possibility too, Trump is just saying he won, without even any bad numbers – like those in the Breitbart “poll” – to back him up. That would also be in keeping with Trump’s lifelong strategy of declaring victory, loudly, in the face of loss.
Remember that Trump has long lived in a self-reinforcing bubble in which he is allowed to tell himself a story of his life where he is the star, the winner, the hero. Anyone not willing to play along with him in that story by, you know, noting that the facts often don’t support Trump’s version of events, is removed from his inner circle. Which, over time, produces a senior level of aides who function only as enablers.
(Sidebar: Trump’s obsession with being seen as winning the debate seems to overlook what happened in 2016. He was judged by polls conducted after each of the three debates that year to have lost them to Hillary Clinton. He won the White House anyway.)
On Thursday evening, Trump tweeted a screenshot of an unscientific online poll from C-SPAN’s Twitter account that showed him winning 69% to 19% for Biden.
Unfortunately for our democracy, there are now lots (and lots) of people who will take Trump’s tweet about his debate performance as fact – and never do any independent research, which would, of course, show that there is no actual evidence to suggest Trump won the debate.
Trump’s supporters wanted to believe that he won because he said what they wanted to hear. Or they didn’t even watch the debate but they support Trump. Or because the media says that Trump lost, he must have won. (The media didn’t say Trump lost; the media conducted polls in which people who watched the debate said he lost.)
When facts are sidelined in favor of personal opinion, you get the current crisis of truth in our country. And that impact of that crisis falls on Republicans and Democrats equally.