As a TV host, Donald Trump loved ratings. As president, he loves polls—as long as they show him on the upswing.
He crowed on Twitter hours after landing back in Washington from his 12-day Asia tour about his Rasmussen number—46 percent—noting it was “one of the most accurate” in 2016, and decried “fake news” polls showing his approval in the 30s while also suggesting, with no evidence, that “some people” think his numbers could be in the 50s. (The Rasmussen poll sank to 42 percent on Friday.)
Aides in the White House often show Trump polls designed to make him feel good, according to aides and advisers. Usually they’re the ones that focus just on voters who cast ballots for him in 2016 or are potential Trump supporters —Trump’s base—but occasionally include public polls like Rasmussen, depending on what the numbers say.
“You know, I thought that he’d be a little less in campaign mode than he’s been. I think he’s never really kind of gotten out of campaign mode and I thought he might,” said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Trump adviser. “I guess it’s his judgment that that’s what he has to do but that’s surprised me a little bit.”
Keeping track of polls while in office isn’t unusual. President Bill Clinton infamously had his pollster Dick Morris survey voters about where to go on vacation before the 1996 election—the data led the Clintons to Yellowstone Park in Wyoming, after previously summering on Martha’s Vineyard—and President Barack Obama asked his pollster Joel Benenson to collect public opinon data as the 2009 stimulus bill took shape.
“Usually you know what you want to do [in office], and you have to figure out, ‘What’s the best argument for persuading the greatest amount of people?’” Benenson said.
George W. Bush cared less about polling early in his term, said Ari Fleischer, his former press secretary.
“If you came into his office and said, ‘The polls say this, the polls say that’ — it was the easiest way to get kicked out,” said Bush’s former press secretary Ari Fleischer.
That’s not the case in Trump’s White House, which uses polls not just to cheer the president up but to get other Republicans in line.
“The polls are about the base,” one adviser said. “He cares about the base.”
When the White House sent internal poll numbers to about 15 legislators last month in hopes of pressuring them to support tax reform, it wasn’t the usual approve-disapprove.
Instead, the polls delineated by the president’s base, steady Trump voters, soft Trump voters, lean Dem independent voters, white working class men, suburban women. For example, in New Jersey’s seventh congressional district, a wealthier stretch that includes Trump’s Bedminster golf club, 72.7 percent of the president’s base approves of him, while 67.9 percent of Republicans approve, internal polls obtained by POLITICO show. There was no data on his approval rating overall.
The numbers came from the Republican National Committee. An RNC spokeswoman said the data is available to show “the priorities and sentiments of voters in a way that traditional polling does not.”
“The White House routinely briefs members of Congress on the strong support that the president and his legislative agenda in their districts, particularly tax cuts for middle-income Americans,” said White House spokesman Raj Shah.
Neil Newhouse, the lead pollster on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, said the White House’s polling presentation focused on selling an overhaul of the tax system to the president’s electoral base was a smart use of survey data.
“I would call this strategic polling where — this is going to sound maybe a little crass — they don’t really care where all Americans stand on the issue of tax reform. Because 35 to 40 percent of Americans are never going to support anything he does,” said Newhouse. “Why should I spend my money trying to find out what they think?”
Concerns grow in the White House when the support slides among voters who picked Trump in 2016, several senior aides and advisers said. Aides in Trump’s political affairs shop shrug off public polls that survey the general public. Most of the public pollsters are seen as “not understanding him,” one senior White House official said, a position carried over from the campaign, when many polls underestimated support for Trump and showed him losing in key counties that he won.
Adviser Jared Kushner often tells Trump not to trust traditional data, while former chief White House strategist Steve Bannon used to tell Trump to focus only on the 40 percent or so of Americans who make up his base.
John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, has limited interest in polling data and doesn’t get deeply involved in parsing it, aides said.
Yet several senior officials said they don’t trust the internal polls because they are “delusional” or “just not accurate,” in the words of two officials. The numbers Trump are shown are almost always higher than his public polling numbers. “I wouldn’t trust our polling on that,” one senior aide said, after ticking off numbers on health care earlier this year.
Some outside advisers like Tom Barrack have urged Trump to try and expand his base, not simply maintain it. He often asks questions about polls to Kellyanne Conway, who warns him to keep the base but also shows him other polls outside the RNC data, according to several White House aides.
But while Trump’s aides sometimes go out of their way to give him the rosiest view, Trump himself tracks the Gallup data almost every day, two advisers say, and always knows what the numbers say. When Trump decided to shake up his senior staff this summer, he frequently cited his sinking poll numbers to advisers and friends as a reason he needed to make a change.
It means Trump often has a complicated routine of keeping up with polls—which paint a dismal picture, giving him an average approval rating of 38 percent, according to RealClearPolitics—and getting upset privately, while blustering and calling them “fake” in public.
Sometimes, though, they drive him to change his behavior—like when he made a brief, quickly-undone agreement with Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to save Obama’s program offering young undocumented immigrants work permits and some protection from deportation.
Trump saw his poll numbers tick up and started using the word “bipartisanship,” but that was short-lived. After he was told by his team and some on Capitol Hill that the move would depress support among his base, he backed off, advisers say.
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