New York Times getting nervous polls that show Hillary leading might be wrong

Gray Lady losing confidence in horrible, corrupt, shrill, dishonest, inept lady.

Look, I don’t blame the New York Times one bit. If I was in the tank for a candidate as inept as Hillary Clinton, I’d be nervous too. It’s bad enough that she might lose. Anyone who looks at Hillary honestly can see what a horrible candidate she is. Of course she might lose. But how bad would it be if she lost to Donald Trump, even after the media did everything it could to paint him as some sort of a cross between Hitler, Gordon Gekko and Alfred E. Neuman?

Now that would be bad.

But the polls! The polls show Hillary leading, right? Er, not like they did a few weeks ago, and now the Times is getting nervous that even what advantage the polls do show might not be real. The problem for Hillary is that traditional polling, which relies on direct phone interviews, are becoming an anachronism. If you solely on that kind of polling, she appears to be in the lead. But the Times’s Nate Cohn wonders if that really gives an accurate picture of what’s going on:

Why does Mr. Trump do better in online polls? And are the online polls right? The prevailing theory of Mr. Trump’s edge in online surveys is “social desirability bias” — the idea that poll respondents might be less likely to divulge a socially undesirable opinion, like support for a controversial candidate like Mr. Trump, to a live interviewer than in an online questionnaire.

This is not an entirely new phenomenon for Mr. Trump. He fared better in online surveys during the Republican primaries than he did in telephone surveys, a tendency first identified by Jonathan Robinson at Catalist, a data firm associated with the Democratic Party. The pattern lasted all the way through the end of the primary season. The online pollster Morning Consult conducted a study indicating that social desirability bias drove his edge.

Thomas Edsall, writing in the The New York Times, raised the possibility that the same phenomenon explains Mr. Trump’s strength in the online polls right now, suggesting that Mr. Trump could outperform traditional surveys showing a wide lead for Mrs. Clinton.

Social desirability bias might well be helping Mr. Trump in online polls. But it’s a lot less clear now than it was during the primary season. And even if that is what’s going on, there’s no reason to assume the online polls are right.

Now to be sure, Cohn doesn’t much trust the online polls. But he seems in some ways to contradict his own argument in favor of the more traditional telephone interviews. If people who actually plan to vote for Trump are concerned about saying so in an interview, whereas they feel more free to do so in an online polls, doesn’t that suggest that there is an inherent problem with the phone polls?

I know the Times is interested in pushing pro-Hillary narratives in this campaign season, so maybe they will do more of their own phone polls so as (they hope) to generate more headlines suggesting Hillary is in the lead. But one thing no one can deny is that Trump defies many of the traditional rules of American politics, or at least the things political analysts have treated as the rules. He says things that have always been regarded as the guaranteed death of a campaign, and yet he not only survives but grows in his support and popularity.

I think the Clintons are terrified of running against Trump because a) he will not run a predictable, conventional campaign like a normal Republican candidate would have, so it’s hard for them to know what to do to prepare; and b) he will absolutely not hold back in saying anything that might cast aspersions on Hillary. And fortunately for Trump, if your goal is to make Hillary look bad by saying bad things about her, there’s no need to make anything up. There’s plenty of information that’s both true and damning. A more conventional Republican might have been worried that the voters wouldn’t like the negativity, or that he’d be seen as being mean to the girl. Trump will not care. He will attack, flat out, and hold nothing back.

I don’t think that would work except for one thing: The attacks on Hillary will all be true, and they’ll be easy to demonstrate as true. That’s a real problem for her, and I think she knows it.

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