In a 1933 classic “Duck Soup,” Chico Marx memorably says, “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” (The actual movie quote doesn’t have the word “lying” in it—it was added later in re-telling.)
Chico Marx’s question seems apt today, given that following the news too closely can give one a case of cognitive dissonance.
Something very strange is going on with our news media, as it covers the state of the 2020 campaign. Donald Trump, according to the big news outlets (CNN, the New York Times, ABC, the Washington Post, and their brethren), is on the ropes. The polls from these same news outlets show him losing by catastrophic margins to virtually every Democratic candidate. Even Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who is polling at 2 percent among Democrats, would defeat Trump in every key state.
Joe Biden—according to the polls and the pundits—would crush Trump even in the reddest of the red states. Forget the Midwest—Biden is so wildly popular, even Texas is now out of reach for the GOP. Quinnipiac says Biden will squash Trump like a bug in Florida—50 percent to 41 percent. In fact, another Quinnipiac poll reports a tsunami of Bidenophilia is sweeping the nation from coast to coast. “Joe Biden is ahead by landslide proportions,” says Quinnipiac.
The same experts who have been telling us for two-and-a-half years that “the walls are closing in,” that “Donald Trump is staring into the abyss,” that “the noose is tightening, and that Trump will be impeached real soon now, are now telling us that Trump has virtually no chance of reelection. Given his cataclysmically dire poll numbers, Trump is more likely to be the first man to land on Mars, than to remain president after 2020.
Even Fox News is getting in on the act. Its house poll has Biden ahead by 10 points. With friends like these, Trump doesn’t need enemies.
Biden has around 30 percent of the Democratic electorate. Back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that if roughly 35-37 percent of Americans self-identify as Democrats, then there are 35 million Bidenites out there. Given that many self-declared Independents actually vote “D,” a 45 million Biden supporter count is, if anything, an underestimate. At 45 million strong, those eager Biden voters are so thick on the ground, you can’t go anywhere without tripping over them.
So where the heck are they?
Biden’s rallies are thinly attended. His kick-off rally took place in Philadelphia—the very heart of Biden country. Pennsylvania is a must-win state for Democrats—and Biden is (he says) the perfect man to do it. And yet, his campaign kick-off was a snoozer. (Biden’s campaign claimed 6,000 supporters attended, but even people who were there don’t buy those numbers.) Many other major (and not so major) candidates’ campaign kick-offs generated more buzz. Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.)—testing the boundaries of irrelevance now, at around 6-7 percent, and struggling to attract attention—claimed 20,000 people at her kickoff. Even Bernie Sanders had over 10,000.
Post-announcement, a typical Biden campaign event could fit into a school bus. (Twitter wags claim a Biden rally could fit into a phone booth, or into a bathroom stall, but that’s giving Biden too little credit.) Roughly 65 voters came to a big Biden Iowa rally on June 11. Trump had an Iowa rally the same day—my best estimate from this video is at least 20 times as many showed up (watch around 1:10:23 mark).
Biden’s rare “campaign events” often take place at small union halls, or before a captive audience of two- or three-dozen students. Given the paltry attendance numbers, the putative Democratic frontrunner struggles even to fill small venues. Biden’s entire effort seems more of an endless fundraiser than a real campaign. Biden can raise money. All that’s missing is the actual voters.
Biden himself seems to fall asleep at his own events, or blurts out mind-altering nonsense, such as promising to cure cancer or to develop “G5 technology” for cell phones. Perhaps his staffers are playing a cruel joke on an elderly, befuddled candidate. But this isn’t about Biden’s physical and mental deterioration per se. The bigger question is: given his phenomenal coast-to-coast popularity, where are those 45 million Bidenophiles?
If Biden is not feeling the voters’ love, he is not alone. Take Beto O’Rourke, for example. Beto held a campaign rally in Columbia, South Carolina, on June 15. Columbia has a stadium that seats 85,000—but Beto modestly decided to forego the stadium. He had reason to be modest—his campaign claimed 450 people attended, but a photo from the event showed perhaps 150. That many people would be impressive at a Biden event, but it’s hardly what you would expect of an electoral phenomenon.
The same more or less holds true of other Democratic candidates. Some can scare up a couple hundred voters on rare occasions, others resort to panhandling in gay bars for $1 so they qualify for the Democratic debate (See Kirsten Gillibrand, U.S. Senator from New York). The mainstream media hates publishing photos with a good overview of the crowds—one has to scour the internet for them. So where is all that anti-Trump fervor? Where is all that #Resistance? The Democratic front-runner looks and acts like a cadaver attending his own funeral, the others mostly contort themselves into progressive-pandering court jesters.
It’s not just the presidential campaign. June 15 was “Impeach Trump” day, sponsored by MoveOn.org, with 130 rallies and demonstrations across the country, virtually all of them in the deepest of the deep-blue cities. The whole thing was a bust. In New York City—where impeachment fans swarm on every street corner—only 300 impeachment aficionados roused themselves from their stupor. In other cities, 50-60 people at an “impeachment rally” counted as impressive. Some rallies had barely a handful of people showing up. Taking a very generous average of 50 people per “Impeach Trump rally,” this works out to maybe 6,000 people nationwide.
But if 40 percent of Americans support impeachment, then there are 130 million impeachment lovers out there. And yet, not even 0.5 percent of 1 percent of them bothered to show up for the big day.
The contrast is most jarring when compared to—who else?—Trump. Trump’s campaign kick-off rally was on June 18, at the packed Amway Arena in Orlando. The arena holds 20,000 and was full. (Orlando has a population of 280,000, maybe triple that if you count the surrounding area.) People were lining up at the door at 2:30 a.m. the day before, 40 hours before the event. They waited for hours in the rain, heat, and humidity. How many Biden, or Beto, or Bernie, or Warren fans waited for them for two days before they showed up? And why would they? It’s not like there is a shortage of space at their events.
In Trump’s campaign in 2015-2016, the rallies started on June 17, 2015, two days after he announced. He quickly drew thousands of people—3,000 at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, New Hampshire, 15,000 at the Phoenix Convention Center, anywhere from 15,000 to 30,000 at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Alabama. In the first two and a half months of campaigning in a crowded field of 17 Republican candidates, Trump had more than 40,000 people at his rallies. Most Democrats—including Biden—can’t boast even one-tenth that many voters coming to see them in their first six months. To compare, recall Trump’s rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin on April 27—at a packed 10,000-person arena, in a city of 100,000.
The biggest single Trump rally in the 2016 cycle was 29,000 people on March 12, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. But in this cycle, the Democrats have been running in various forms since January, and yet they struggle to fill a roadside diner. Their frontrunner can’t make up his mind about his core beliefs and many key issues. But the pundits and the pollsters confidently assure us Trump’s reelection bid is tanking.
This just doesn’t make any sense. We are looking at two separate versions of reality, and both of them can’t be true.
What are we all missing here? Are the polls asking the wrong questions? Are they oversampling Democrats? Are people simply lying to the pollsters? Are the polls meaningless? Are attendance numbers meaningless? Is Trump’s support solid, but not extending beyond the core voters? Is his roughly 44 percent job approval in RealClearPolitics average (at least as good as Obama’s at this point) also meaningless? Is it too early in the election cycle for Democrats to attend campaign events in large numbers? Is the rank-and-file exhausted from the never-ending Trump Hate Weeks? Are Democrats’ crowds so pitiful because they are split among 24 of them? But Biden has 30 percent in the polls—why are his crowds tiny enough for him to hold most of his events at a Burger King? And Trump had 16 other Republicans to contend with in 2015—most of them far more formidable contenders, at least on paper, than the Democrats’ clown bus.
In this environment, are polls really “harder” data than anecdotal evidence or attendance numbers? Or do crowds matter more? Democrats say no. They said that in 2016, too—and it didn’t end well for them. A retired musician said on Twitter (quoting from memory): “Take it from someone who did this for a living for 50 years—crowd size is EVERYTHING.” Is he right?
I don’t know the answers to all these questions—people much smarter than me need to pick these polls apart, and offer insight into why the polls are at odds with observable reality. But Chico Marx’s enduring question comes to mind.
Photo Credit: Joshua Lott/Getty Images