Debate Polls: How to Cherrypick Statistics

Image result for presidential debate

Despite supposed evidence from CNN and various other venues that Hillary Clinton won the first presidential debate, Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed that he won and these claims are false. Trump now has proof he won the first presidential debate. Late Monday and Tuesday in a series of tweets on his official Twitter feed Donald Trump provided evidence in the form of various media polls which showed public opinion believed he won the debate. “We won every poll. Virtually every poll,” he told supporters.

Trump highlighted polls from outlets such as Time, Variety and The Hill which showed the American people believed he won. The problem is that he is wrong. Trump did win those polls, except they don’t mean anything. And they’re not really “polls”. As explained by NPR:

“The post-debate “polls” the GOP nominee and campaign kept touting that he won on social media, at his rally in Florida and in press releases aren’t polls at all. They’re essentially unscientific Internet popularity contests, are not weighted as to what the electorate will actually look like, and have no predictive value. In fact, if you’re worried about voter fraud, in many of these surveys people can vote multiple times and they can easily be rigged by Internet bots.

“Many of the results he cited came from very Trump-friendly sites, such as Breitbart News and the Drudge Report. Some of these polls were shared by Trump supporters on reddit, encouraging people to go vote. These were not selective samples with any merit, and in no way could they accurately measure whether the more than 81 million people who tuned in for the debate thought Trump did better than Hillary Clinton.”

Even Fox News, who trumpeted the same polls cited by Trump, warned that such polls are essentially meaningless. Fox News has also since told their employees to stop citing these unscientific polls.

However, the fact that these “polls” are unscientific and don’t mean anything yet are being used to declare a Trump victory is not the sole issue. Public opinion poll methodology, while not overly complicated, is nuanced. People can be forgiven for not understanding the difference between scientific and unscientific polls. Even media members at first glance may not be able to tell the difference without diving into the methods by which the poll was conducted. What is most troubling is that understanding these polls did not equate to a Trump victory was right in front of your face.

Below is the Donald Trump tweet illustrating most of the polls he says means he won. If you look at these polls individually, however, it becomes apparent that they say no such thing.

  • Time – “A disclaimer: Online reader polls like this one are not statistically representative of likely voters, and are not predictive of how the debate outcome will affect the election. They are a measure, however imprecise, of which candidates have the most energized online supporters, or most social media savvy fan base”.
  • CNBC – “Disclaimer: This is an informal poll. Results are not scientific and may not necessarily reflect the opinions of the public as a whole”.
  • Fortune – “Like any online reader poll, this is not a scientific survey, nor is it statistically representative of the American electorate”. And the poll Trump tweeted is about the economy, not who won the debate.
  • Fox 5 San Diego – The page on which the poll is located is filled with CNN fact-checks declaring much of what Trump said during the debate as “False”.
  • Breitbart – Is an alt-right haven whose chairman was named CEO of the Trump campaign.
  • Drudge Report – This specific poll was hyped by Joe Scarborough on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”, saying “The fact that you have 80 percent of the people revved up enough to go to those polls suggests something”. However, in the same breath he also stated that “by all past debate standards, Hillary Clinton won. Most of us around the table believe that”. So Drudge Report is not necessarily up front about its bias, unless you understand that 3/4 of Drudge’s audience is conservative.
  • Patch – “Online polls…are in no way scientific and are not a reflection of the voting population at large. People can vote in these multiple times, across different devices. People from anywhere — New York, Alabama, Russia, China, the moon (once we set up that base) — can go to any website and cast a vote for their candidate with no barrier to entry”.
  • – “Note: Online surveys conducted on are non-scientific and their results should not be considered an accurate reflection of public opinion”.
  • Heavy – “NBC News’ Lester Holt moderated the 90-minute debate, which analysts — and betting markets— largely scored as a win for Clinton. Read on for a recap of the debate, and vote in our poll at the bottom of the post on who you think won the debate”.
  • PolitOpinion – Who? Has no content to denote scientific nature of survey.
  • The Hill – Website is full of articles documenting how Clinton won the debate.

A couple other polls which Trump tweeted out were not included above. Variety and also produced post-debate polls which supposedly showed a Trump victory.

  • Variety – Covers show business.
  • – “Please vote in our unscientific, informal poll”.

Donald Trump has criticized the media for saying that these polls mean nothing: “I’m winning all of these polls, hundred of thousand of votes. I have to sit back and you have to sit back and hear these polls don’t mean anything. So we won every single online poll, and then you sit back and you hear how she did so well in the debate. I don’t think she did well at all”. No, you don’t. And neither do hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of other people. But these polls don’t mean Trump won the debate because they are not representative of likely voters. And if the survey samples are not representative of likely voters then they are not representative of Donald Trump’s statistical probability of winning the election. Unlike say, the CNN poll which Trump dislikes, which does correlate with likelihood of victory.

If more liberals watched the debate than did conservatives, which is the trend, then CNN’s Democrat-skewed poll which showed Hillary Clinton winning the debate by a landslide was more accurate then any of the polls cited by Trump. It should actually be discouraging to Trump that only 75% of Breitbart’s respondents said he won when almost 80% of Breitbart’s audience is conservative.

And every scientific survey says the debate went to Hillary Clinton.



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