Morning Consult Campaigns: Explaining Trump’s Edge in Online Polls

In today’s edition: Why Trump does better online; why Obama’s Spock needs a little more Kirk; Graham quits; Rubio dominates airwaves this week, but big Jeb buys coming soon.

Explaining Trump’s Advantage in Online Polls

As the polling industry evolves, online polls — like the kind Morning Consult conducts — are playing a greater role in shaping the media consensus in the presidential election. One curveball that’s emerged between online polls and those conducted by phone: Donald Trump does significantly better online than over the phone.

Consider a new study conducted by Morning Consult pollster Kyle Dropp: We interviewed 2,397 registered Republicans and Republican-leaning independents using three different methodologies — online, live-caller and interactive voice response (better known as IVR) — last week. Trump performed measurably better among those who answered online (38 percent) or by IVR (36 percent) than among those who answered a live-caller poll (32 percent). No other candidate experienced a gap anywhere near as large.

The difference was notably pronounced among those with a college education, and among voters who say they are very interested in the election. Trump’s support is 8 to 10 points higher online than over the phone among those voters.

Why? One potential reason is social desirability bias, or the tendency to believe backing Trump is not a socially acceptable position. Someone may be more likely to pick Trump when they don’t have to interact with a human — online or on a recorded IVR poll — than they would be when talking to a real live human being.

The real-life implications may play out most significantly in the difference between Trump’s performance in Iowa, where voters meet in groups, and New Hampshire, where voters have the privacy of the voting booth. These results suggest Trump will underperform public polls in Iowa, where he’s already falling behind Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and overperform in New Hampshire, where he continues to lead the field.

The primary season represents yet another significant test for the polling industry, after high-profile flops in recent years. Online, phone, IVR: Every method has something at stake.

Check out Kyle’s full study here.

Obama’s Spock Needs Some Kirk

When Leonard Nimoy died in February, the White House issued an unusually personal statement from President Obama. The president praised Nemoy’s signature character, the “cool, logical, big-eared and level-headed” Spock.

“I loved Spock,” Obama said.

That affection may stem from a sense of commonality between the unflappable Vulcan and a president who has, in times of crisis, prided himself of remaining rational and even-keeled himself. In an era of instant politics and made-for-television soundbites, Obama stands apart for his determination to convey a sense of calm, steady-handed control. The comparison between Obama and Spock has occurred to more than a few of his senior advisors.

But repeatedly during his tumultuous seven years in office, Obama has found a public unconvinced that the federal government actually is in control of whatever crisis has sprung up most recently. Cool rationality can appear, to an outsider, as aloof detachment. And several times, Obama has recognized a need to demonstrate a more aggressive approach only after the initial impression has been left.

Put another way: At times, the cerebral Spock has had to take a page from the more assertive Captain Kirk.

The latest moment of self-reflection came this week, in a private session at the White House with reporters and columnists from a handful of news outlets. Obama told the journalists, in an off-the-record meeting reported by the New York Times, that he realizes he did not convey urgency in the response to terror attacks in Paris and in San Bernardino, Calif.

While at an international meeting in Turkey, Obama made comments that even some longtime allies called weak, and he left an impression that the administration was not doing enough to ensure national security.

In response in recent days, the White House has worked to show a president more actively engaged. Two weeks ago, Obama delivered a rare televised address from the Oval Office. Last week, Obama convened a National Security Council meeting at the Pentagon. On Friday, he stopped in San Bernardino on the way to his family’s annual Christmas holiday in Hawaii to offer condolences.

This is not the first time the president has attempted to convey a calm and steady hand, only to be portrayed as disinterested and out of touch, and then worked, belatedly, to show Americans the actions his administration has taken.

Last year, during the height of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, Americans began to fear the virus could land on U.S. shores, and the Obama administration maintained a cool public face. Behind the scenes, U.S. humanitarian and health agencies like USAID and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into national preparation and the international response, while the White House downplayed fears that an outbreak could happen here.

Any confidence that approach built vanished on Sept. 29, 2014, when the CDC announced a patient at a Dallas hospital was being tested for Ebola. The administration was undermined even more two weeks later when two nurses who treated that patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, also fell ill. (Duncan died; the nurses, happily, survived.)

With the 2014 midterm elections just a month away, politicians demanded a stronger response. The first calls for action came from Republican candidates running in North Carolina and Michigan; then from Republicans in Congress, who demanded a ban on flights between the U.S. and West Africa; then from exasperated Democrats, who wondered why their president wasn’t conveying the urgency many Americans felt.

Obama and his team recognized they had been trying to provide the public with a level of assurance that was both unrealistic, and untrue. They realized they couldn’t promise Ebola would not come to America, only that the government would be ready with an overwhelming response if it did.

The White House brought in Ron Klain, a trusted Washington fixer, to oversee the Ebola crisis; they sent Obama himself to CDC headquarters, and to the briefing room, to convey just how seriously the administration took the crisis. No one else got sick, and the panic gradually subsided.

This pattern was also evident in 2010, when an explosion at an offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico sent millions of gallons of oil spewing into the sea. For a month, the White House insisted it was not responsible for the cleanup; the oil giant BP would handle it. Eventually, Obama took responsibility for the slow response.

“In case you were wondering who’s responsible, I take responsibility,” he told reporters. Obama said the government had been working non-stop to stem the leak, but not, Obama admitted, with “sufficient urgency.”

“It is my job to make sure that everything is done to shut this down,” Obama added. “But there shouldn’t be any confusion here: The federal government is fully engaged, and I’m fully engaged.” On a conference call with reporters that afternoon, a month into the spill, Adm. Thad Allen, who was spearheading the administration’s response, admitted it was still an ongoing operation.

At a time when political arguments often boil down to soundbites, Obama has made a point to be guided as much as possible by science and rationality. Conveying competence can inspire confidence.

But after a decade lost to an economic recession and a sluggish recovery, a nation weary of war and scarred by political and cultural scandal, voters are not in a confident mood. Rationality can look like inaction. Obama has recognized, repeatedly and belatedly, that his Spock needs a little more Kirk.

Graham Out

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) ended his quixotic bid for president Monday, after his super PAC poured about $3 million into New Hampshire air time. That money never moved his numbers; the super PAC, apparently out of money, went off the air Dec. 14.

Graham’s campaign had Dec. 21 on its calendar for a long time: Today is the last day he could drop off the primary ballot in his home state. His team told us a few weeks ago he was banking on a stellar performance in last week’s Republican (undercard) debate, but that performance never materialized. Even in South Carolina, Graham’s support buckled quickly: He fell from 17 percent in a February NBC/Marist poll to the low single digits in the last few weeks. South Carolina Republican Party chairman Matt Moore confirmed Graham’s name won’t be on the ballot come February.

In a video announcing his decision to quit, Graham takes credit for bringing national security to the fore. But voters never gave him a serious look, even when national security became their top concern.

Graham’s campaign will be remembered most for his feud with Donald Trump, in which the real casualty was Graham’s old flip phone. But he may have also positioned himself for a job down the road, either as Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense in the next Republican administration.

Speaking of Trump In Iowa…

Shot: “Trump touts Iowa ground game as caucuses near,” in Sunday’s Des Moines Register. “We’ve got such an incredible ground game,” Trump said.

Chaser: “Donald Trump Campaign Lags in Mobilizing Iowa Caucus Voters,” on A1 in Sunday’s New York Times. The campaign’s first major training session for precinct leaders drew about 80 in West Des Moines, with another 50 participating online. Trump’s campaign aims to turn out 48,000 voters.

Who’s On Air

Candidates aren’t giving early state voters much of a break over Christmas, though this week’s television and radio ad spending is notably lower than recent weeks — $7.9 million this week, down from just over $10 million spent last week. Here’s who’s on air over the next seven days:

Jeb Bush: Bush’s campaign is spending $25,000 in New Hampshire this week, down from $189,000 last week. He’ll return to the airwaves with a massive blitz during the first full week in January, when the campaign has bought $750,000 in airtime. Bush’s Right to Rise super PAC will spend $530,000 in Iowa, $529,000 on national cable and $1.5 million on New Hampshire TV this week, along with $255,000 in South Carolina and $22,000 in Nevada. Total pro-Bush tab for the week: About $1.35 million.

Ben Carson: Carson’s campaign is spending $273,000 in Iowa, while a pro-Carson super PAC is adding $39,000 on Cedar Rapids and Des Moines cable.

Chris Christie: Christie’s campaign isn’t on the air this week, but his American Leads super PAC will spend $825,000 in New Hampshire, the bulk of it on Boston and Manchester broadcast.

Ted Cruz: Like Bush, Cruz’s campaign is taking a breather too. He’s booked $29,000 in Iowa airtime, all of it on radio, and $20,000 on Fox News spots in South Carolina. A pro-Cruz super PAC is spending another $51,000 on Iowa radio ads.

Mike Huckabee: Huckabee’s fans are also big into radio. His super PAC is spending $35,000 this week, just $6,000 of which is going into TV spots.

John Kasich: Kasich’s New Day for America super PAC will spend $124,000 on broadcast and cable in New Hampshire this week.

Rand Paul: America’s Liberty PAC will spend $16,000 each on Iowa and New Hampshire airtime. They have tiny buys booked through the caucuses, which may suggest they’re running out of money.

Marco Rubio: Rubio’s campaign is on air with $337,000 in Iowa, $322,000 in New Hampshire and $413,000 in South Carolina, according to our data. Conservative Solutions PAC will spend another $382,000 in Iowa, $446,000 in New Hampshire and $78,000 in South Carolina; Conservative Solutions Project will add $97,000 on Iowa airtime, $75,000 on national radio and $31,000 in South Carolina. Total pro-Rubio tab this week: Almost $2.2 million.

Rick Santorum: Santorum’s Working Again PAC is spending $12,000 on Iowa radio this week.

Hillary Clinton: Clinton’s campaign is spending $234,000 on Iowa TV and radio, $474,000 in New Hampshire and $13,000 in South Carolina. The South Carolina spending is all on radio.

Bernie Sanders: Sanders’s campaign will spend $253,000 on Iowa airtime this week, $339,000 in New Hampshire, $102,000 in Nevada and just $2,000 on South Carolina radio. Still, he’s the only candidate with a significant presence on the Nevada airwaves.

Morning Consult