How A Controversial Unsourced Dem Poll Became Red Meat For The Trump Campaign

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to members of the press prior to his departure from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC., on Friday, July 19, 2019. (Photo by Cheriss May/NurPhoto)
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to members of the press prior to his departure from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC., on Friday, July 19, 2019. (Photo by Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
July 22, 2019 12:53 p.m.

An unsourced poll purportedly circulating among “top Democrats” and used to bash the party’s left flank in a highly controversial article last week has quickly morphed into Trump campaign fodder.

“Do SOCIALISTS speak for YOU?”

That was the subject line on a characteristically outraged email from the Trump campaign to supporters on Sunday. It began, “A new Axios poll shows that just 18% of swing voters have a favorable view of socialism.”

But that’s not quite true. In reality, the poll didn’t measure “swing voters,” but rather “likely general-election voters who are white and have two years or less of college education.” (It’s not the first time Trump has implied white voters comprise the entire electorate: He’s frequently referred to receiving 52% of women’s votes in 2016 when in reality the exit poll number in question counted only white women.)

Amid fierce Democratic infighting, the Beltway news website Axios reported on the unsourced poll results without industry-standard information like who conducted the poll, who paid for it, its margin of error, or how specific questions were worded. That decision allowed Trump to cite the poll in his email without any Democrat or polling firm in a public position to refute him.

Axios also gave an anonymous “top Democrat” room to vent in the same article about the party’s left wing, which includes news-making congresswomen like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN).

“If all voters hear about is AOC, it could put the [House] majority at risk,” an unnamed “top Democrat” who’s “involved in 2020 congressional races,” seethed to Axios. “[S]he’s getting all the news and defining everyone else’s races.”

“Socialism is toxic to these voters,” said the unnamed Democrat.

Axios co-founder Mike Allen wrote that “the group that took the poll shared the results with Axios on the condition that it not be named, because the group has to work with all parts of the party.” The poll, he wrote, was “making the rounds of some of the most influential Democrats in America.”

Savvy reporters immediately called foul.

“[R]eaders have no way of knowing who commissioned the poll, who conducted it, how they identified the voters they surveyed, what methodology they used to interview them or what exactly respondents were asked,” HuffPost polling editor Ariel Edwards-Levy wrote. Though the article refers to “swing states” and “swing voters,” that’s not the same thing as white voters without four-year degrees, and nothing else in the article defined who was polled.

“Basing a story on unsourced, thinly contextualized polling data isn’t savvy; it’s deeply credulous,” Edwards-Levy wrote.

The article, published as several congresspeople on the party’s left flank publicly criticized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and others, was sure to fuel the intra-party fire. Trump saw his opportunity. Soon after Axios’ article on the poll, he used the reported results, incorrectly, to attack Omar and Ocasio-Cortez.

Defending himself after tweeting a racist attack against four progressive congresswomen (Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA)) Trump cited the poll.

“Omar is polling at 8%, Cortez at 21%” he wrote, fudging the numbers slightly and omitting that the numbers reflected white voters with two years or less of college, rather than the general public or people in the congresswomen’s districts.

The Trump campaign press secretary Kayleigh McEnany used the same numbers and cited Axios later in the day. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple reported after Trump’s tweet that Axios had declined to comment.

After Trump’s tweet, AOC called his use of the poll a “mass distortion of reality.” Authoritarians, she wrote, “will take advantage of anyone and anything to meet that end.”

On Monday morning, Axios spokesperson Megan Swiatkowski told TPM she was “unaware of the email” but had no further comment over the phone. She later wrote in an email: “As stated in the story, the poll is not an Axios poll and was not of swing voters: Respondents were white voters with two years or less of college, in certain House districts.” The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment regarding the inaccuracies in its Sunday email.

It’s not clear how or why the Trump campaign referred to white voters without four-year degrees as the all-encompassing term “swing voters,” but Frank Luntz, the GOP consultant and pundit who reportedly has advised the White House from time-to-time, did the same thing in tweets about the Axios article. He later acknowledged the error.

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