Scott Rasmussen Explains Pollsters’ Flaws on Trump, Socialism

Scott Rasmussen founded one of the leading polling firms in America. He’s observed decades of polling trends and knows the industry better than anyone. I had the chance to sit down with Scott recently to discuss some of the major trends in American public opinion. Read the interview, posted below, or listen on the podcast:

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  • President Donald Trump marked the 75th anniversary of D-Day on Thursday, speaking in Normandy, France.
  • NYC Police Commissioner James O’Neill officially apologized to the gay community, saying that the Stonewall raid was “wrong, plain and simple.”
  • Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is standing up to defend conservative commentator Steven Crowder, after YouTube moved to block advertising from Crowder’s YouTube channel.

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Daniel Davis: I’m joined now by Scott Rasmussen. He is the founder of Rasmussen Reports and co-founder of ESPN and he’s now doing independent polling at scottrasmussen.com. Mr. Rasmussen, thanks for joining us.

Scott Rasmussen: Great to be with you today.

Davis: I want to ask you first about the 2016 election. A lot of polling agencies had Donald Trump losing the election. What was the secret to accurate polling in that cycle?

Rasmussen: The national polling overall was pretty good. The national polling averages showed that Donald Trump would lose the popular vote by three points, he lost by two. So the national polls were actually closer than they were in 2012.

I think there were two problems. First, the people analyzing the polls assumed. There’s always a margin of error. Many of the people in the media assumed, “Well, she’s up by three points. She’s probably going to win by six because of the margin of error.” They just didn’t believe it could be that close.

Second thing is state polling was bad.

In the key states, there wasn’t enough polling done in places like Michigan and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. And a lot of them didn’t appear to have enough people without a college education in some of the polls. Ultimately, that was the analysis that failed more than the polling, the polling took the fall.

Davis: Right. Well, that is interesting. And contributed to the shock in 2016.

Rasmussen: It was really funny. I had to go on Fox every week during that year and I was always asked the same question by the host, “What is Donald Trump’s path to victory?”

And it first didn’t look like there was much of a path, but then pretty quickly it became clear that if he got the Romney, McCain states, picked up Iowa, so he was at 263 electoral votes.

Davis: Yeah.

Rasmussen: And we were able to say early on that if he’s that close, he could pull off a surprise and the only places that were possible were Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

It didn’t mean that I was expecting that to happen, but on the weekend before the election, we got a really important clue in the data. Fourteen percent of all voters were still uncommitted to one of the major candidates, way out of proportion to earlier elections.

Davis: Really?

Rasmussen: Yeah. In the 2012 cycle, it was only four points at that point.

Davis: Wow.

Rasmussen: So there was a sense that, “OK, there’s the potential for a surprise here.”

Davis: What about under-polling of particular segments in the population? A lot of folks who voted for Trump hadn’t voted in a long time.

Rasmussen: Yeah. … Every firm has different approaches to defining likely voters. A big part of it, I mentioned a few moments ago, was people without a college education.

If you do a survey right now, if you went on and hired SurveyMonkey or somebody to do a poll and you didn’t include pretty stringent controls, you would get way too many people with a college degree, way too many people with a graduate degree.

And if you think of where the Trump support comes from, that means you missed a lot of that support. I think that’s some of what happened in 2016, especially in those surprise states.

Davis: Yeah. A big issue in polling today is socialism with the growing trend, popularity of it with Bernie Sanders and [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and all of those fun folks.

What do you make of the polling trends when it comes to the way Americans feel about socialism?

Rasmussen: This has been one of my real pleasant surprises coming back. I stayed out of polling for several years, came back in and get to look at data fresh again. And like everybody else, I was shocked by the number of people that support socialism.

Our latest poll found 39% of voters favor socialism. And I grew up in the Cold War era. We knew that was the evil ideology that destroyed the Soviet Union. And Ronald Reagan was convinced that we would outlast them because their system was internally inconsistent, and he was right.

When I began to look a little deeper, I quickly realized that when people today say they like socialism, they are not at all talking about what Bernie Sanders or AOC are promoting. Total disconnect from that.

Davis: Yes.

Rasmussen: In fact, most people who say they like socialism don’t think of it as an economic ideology. And for people who might think of The Heritage Foundation as the ideas they want to associate with, there are some things about socialism today that will shock them.

A majority of people who say they like socialism today think the country would be better off with less government involvement in the economy.

Only 1 out of 3 people who say they like socialism think it leads to higher taxes and a more powerful government.

They are not thinking of what we used to think of is socialism and they are not thinking of it as a competition to free markets. In fact, 80% of people who like socialism also like free markets.

Davis: Wow. I was actually just looking at this Gallup poll recently showing that a large segment of the population, double-digit majorities of Americans want the free market to govern certain sectors of the economy over the government, even if they say they like socialism.

Rasmussen: I think what we have to get used to, first off, if you’re an economic conservative, you have to get used to the idea that most people who say they like socialism agree with you on free markets.

So there’s common ground instead of saying, “You’re wrong,” we should say, “Well, yeah, let’s talk about where the market can get involved.”

Davis: Yeah.

Rasmussen: Second thing is, there is a difference between supporting the idea of socialism and supporting socialist policies.

So when you talk about something like “Medicare for All,” Americans want to make sure everybody has access to health care. Americans want to have a system that makes sure that everybody can get some decent insurance. And if you ask about Medicare for All, it does well.

However, if you say, what about, and this is in Bernie Sanders’ plan, getting rid of private insurance companies? Only 18% of voters support that.

People want to have more choices in their life. They want to have more choices about health care, not less.

And … if you can provide more choices, you’ve won those people over. And that’s the difference. So people aren’t looking for socialist policies to limit their choices.

Davis: That reminds me of the Medicare for All proposal that seems to poll pretty well when you just give the name, but then when people hear about the details, and the same goes for the Green New Deal …

Rasmussen: Yeah. … There’s a real sickness in Washington about polling data, which is that if people are concerned about something, people in Washington assume they want the federal government to fix it.

I’m convinced that if enough parents couldn’t get prom dates for their kids, then Congress would try to pass a law to fix that because that’s their view.

We’ve asked a number of questions about things like guaranteeing an income or guaranteeing the right to health care types of questions. And people agree with the concept, but fewer than half think it’s the responsibility of the federal government.

A lot of people are much more comfortable with state and local experimentation.

Some are saying it should be in the private sector. In other words, they want a system that makes sure that anybody who’s willing to work, for example, can make a living.

Davis: Yeah. Well, you’ve been polling for a while and I’m curious about some of the major trends that you’ve seen.

What is the most surprising shift in American public opinion over the years that you’ve seen?

Rasmussen: I don’t know that I would even consider it surprising anymore, but what I would have considered surprising when I started is how incredibly polarized people are.

It is a team sport, up and down. Right now, 82% of Republicans believe Donald Trump is more ethical than most politicians and 86% of Democrats believe that Hillary Clinton is more ethical than most politicians.

You get your team and you stick to it. And what that has meant is that our last two presidents, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, their job approval never moves.

Davis: Right.

Rasmussen: Barack Obama was at about 47% for most of his term. He went up a little bit, coming into his reelection. Donald Trump’s at about 46%.

Davis: See, that feels normal to someone like me.

Rasmussen: Exactly.

Davis: Back in the ’90s, the ’80s … I guess even growing up, thereafter 9/11, we saw a huge surge for Bush.

Rasmussen: Right.

Davis: And that kind of thing used to be normative at times.

Rasmussen: Yeah. First of all, there wasn’t as much polling. When Jimmy Carter was inaugurated as president, there were probably only a handful of national polls released during his first three or four months in office and he got a nice honeymoon. Everybody wanted him to do well.

We also had a situation back then when the president could give a primetime speech, it would be carried in all three networks because they would cancel all the other programming. So the entire nation watched it. There was no rebuttal.

So a president really could sway opinion, could really have an impact. That world has changed. It is amazing now. Most Americans really don’t know when the president gives a speech.

Davis: Given the polling now on socialism increasing popularity, at least of the term, the idea of socialism, which again, problems there, how would you recommend conservatives go about making their case for public policies, given that trend?

Rasmussen: I think that conservatives ought to be focusing on free markets, choice, giving people more options, getting control closer to home level.

And obviously, the way you discuss that depends on the issue at hand. But, for example, an issue like the minimum wage, almost 2 out of 3 people think it should be set at the state and local level. Kind of makes sense. New York City might need a different minimum wage than Boise, Idaho.

And beyond that, I think there’s an instinctive recognition that when you break it down that way, you let people see what works. The experimentation, laboratories of democracy can work.

So giving choice between levels of government and letting governments compete is one thing. Something like health insurance is suggesting that people ought to have a choice between low-cost insurance with less coverage and higher-cost coverage that covers just about everything under the sun.

Davis: So fascinating. There’s so many other issues that I want to ask you about. I do want to ask you one final question because you are the co-founder of ESPN. Those early years, what was it like helping run ESPN during the ’80s?

Rasmussen: For me, ESPN was an idea. We launched it with a $9,000 cash advance on a credit card.

Davis: Wow.

Rasmussen: We were too stupid to know it couldn’t be done. And within a year, Getty Oil funded $100 million and it was off and running. And again, it was surreal, everything about it. And I look back and I really do think a sense of it is, we just didn’t know it wasn’t possible.

… We had the idea, we learned about the satellite distribution technology, which was as revolutionary then as the internet was 15 years later.

We had the satellite capacity, we had an idea that there was a yearning for sports programming, and we believed in the idea so deeply that we were able to sell it. And then it just took off beyond anybody’s imagination.

Davis: Well, there’s never been anything like it. Scott Rasmussen, I really appreciate your time today.

Rasmussen: Thank you. Have a great day.

Davis: Thank you.

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