Like a lot of stories this election cycle, this one begins with words coming out of Donald Trump’s mouth. At an August 1 rally in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, Trump appeared to refer to his Democratic rival for the presidency, Hillary Clinton, as “the devil.” The remark was a momentary flare-up in a week already rife with incendiary Trump gaffes, and quickly burned itself out.
Or at least it would have been had not Public Policy Polling, a North Carolina-based polling firm, brought it back to life. On Tuesday, PPP released a poll that, in addition to showing Clinton leading Trump in North Carolina for the first time since March, found that fully 41 percent of the state’s likely Trump voters believe the Democratic presidential nominee to be the literal incarnation of Satan. “Do you think Hillary Clinton is the Devil, or not?” read question 21 of PPP’s survey, which 830 hapless denizens of the Tar Heel State dutifully answered.
Of course, Trump’s association of a woman with the devil is as old as the Bible itself. If you’re a New Testament traditionalist, Eve’s transgression in the Garden of Eden, tempted by Lucifer in serpent form, precipitated patriarchy, periods, the pain of childbirth, and presumably Hillary Clinton herself. And PPP’s focus on North Carolina voters is hardly specious: the real-estate mogul’s win in the state’s March primary helped silence speculation that white evangelical conservatives would fall in line behind one of their own, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and they remain a demographic Trump is courting fiercely in the run-up to November.
But the devil of this story is in the details, and its true villain isn’t Donald Trump. It’s not even conservative North Carolinians content to lap up his verbal garbage. No, the real sinner in this diabolical canvassing misadventure is the irresponsible, misleading, and democracy-threatening polling firm that saw fit to ask about it.
As Vox’s Andrew Prokop wrote on Tuesday in response to a series of polls boding ill for the Trump campaign, polls are both “a reflection of the electoral reality” as well as “a driver of the electoral reality,” simultaneously describing and altering the political playing field on which candidates compete. By asking voters if Clinton is truly a Mephistophelian menace, Public Policy Polling—whose methodology Nate Silver decried in 2013 and whose “opacity” and “amateurish weighting techniques” Nate Cohn blasted a year later—is perverting both purposes. This is a sin that PPP has committed repeatedly. In 2011, Slate reported a PPP poll that found just 19 percent of Republican voters think Obama would be “taken up to Heaven in the Rapture.” Two years later, the firm found that 27 percent of Americans would support a tax on hipsters for being annoying, a pedigree that’s continued during this year’s Republican primary. A February poll of Florida voters, for instance, found that 38 percent of respondents believed Ted Cruz might the Zodiac Killer, despite clear evidence he’s not.
Stunts like this are marginally amusing as late-night talk show fodder, but they’re rampantly irresponsible as election-season news. The oodles of stories generated by PPP’s Zodiac Killer poll or its May revelation that head lice’s approval rating topped that of Donald Trump sucked media oxygen away from other issues and campaign-trail goings-on that might have merited discussion, sustaining conversations that weren’t worth having in the first place. Pollster? More like trollster.
Fusion’s Rafi Schwartz offers some defense, writing that the Hillary-as-Satan poll “seems to point to the degree to which Trump supporters buy into their candidate’s conspiracy theories and insinuations” and “internalize them to a remarkably high degree.” As evidence, he submits that the same polls finds 69 percent of likely North Carolina Trump voters “think that if Hillary Clinton wins the election it will be because it was rigged.” But here Schwartz draws a false equivalency. Of course Trump voters buy into their candidate’s conspiracy theory that the election will be rigged, a belief that relies on ignorance, a dangerously widespread faithlessness in governing institutions, and a healthy dose of paranoia. Those are qualities many Trump supporters possess and that the candidate himself stands to benefit from.
But believing that Trump has accurately identified Clinton as the physical embodiment of Satan has no basis in these attributes. It’s straight-up loony. It relies not on ignorance, suspicion, or conspiracy theory but on uninhibited fantasy. PPP might as well ask how many Trump supporters think the sky is green. It also requires interpreting Trump’s words literally, when from context it’s clear he’s accusing Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders of having “made a deal with the devil” by endorsing Clinton, a common Faustian metaphor that does not imply the party metonymized as “the devil” is actually Satan himself. And as if to prove how numbskull a question it was, fully six percent of respondents who self-identified as Clinton backers said they “weren’t sure” if she was the devil or not. Unless we’re prepared to conclude those voters are supporting Clinton because of her supposed Luciferian links, the most charitable reading of the poll’s results is that respondents were either reverse-trolling PPP’s already-trollish question or gleefully indulging Trump’s incendiary rhetoric regardless of their true beliefs about Clinton. Stupid questions earn stupid answers—and the ambiguity that results means PPP failed even to accomplish pollsters’ most fundamental goal: informing Americans as truthfully as possible about what their fellow citizens think.
PPP’s latest poll isn’t all bad. It also asks North Carolinians about how they feel about each candidate (Clinton’s favorable rating beats out Trump’s), whether they favor a continuation of the Obama administration’s policies or Trump’s vision for the country (the former), and whether they would trust Trump with nuclear weapons (more than half say no). But the polling firm’s decision to ask voters whether one of the two major-party candidates for president is the devil, like Trump’s initial reckless use of the phrase, turns democracy into theater of the absurd. Trump’s words are objectionable enough on their own. He—and the country he aspires to lead—doesn’t need pollsters doing his work for him.