By Tom Watson and Peter Daou
The Beltway commentariat was abuzz this week with the latest purported bad news about Hillary Clinton’s campaign to become America’s first woman president.
A poll by Quinnipiac University contained what appeared to be some disturbing news for the most accomplished female political leader of our time.
Said a breathless Quinnipiac press release: “‘Liar’ is the first word that comes to mind more than others in an open-ended question when voters think of Clinton.”
From the dismal precincts of the leering morning zoo testosterone fest on ratings challenged MSNBC to a column by the reliably anti-Hillary pundit Molly Ball of the august Atlantic magazine, this little data nugget was seized on like a hunk of glinting pyrite in the pan of desperate gold hunters eager to see Hillary fail.
Yet like so many of the “bad news for Hillary” stories created by a single cherry-picked piece of data in a polling universe that (still) shows Hillary dominating the Democratic primary and the general election, the “liar” claim is just another bit of fool’s gold.
And in this case it was mined with rank dishonesty, presented unethically by a pollster as a major find, and seized upon by an insider media class determined not to witness Hillary Clinton taking the oath of office in January of 2017.
Let’s go inside the Q poll numbers and see if “liar” stands up as any kind of rational data-based descriptor for general public attitudes about Hillary.
The poll was conducted from August 20 to 25 and included 1,563 registered voters, 666 Republicans and 647 Democrats. There’s the first red flag about Quinnipiac’s integrity and the basis of their “liar” claim. The facts are simple: if you’re trying to get a true picture of the American electorate and represent “the first word that comes to mind more than others in an open-ended question when voters think of Clinton,” you cannot include more Republicans than Democrats.
As the widely respected and non-political Pew Research Center found earlier this year, just 23 percent of Americans identify as Republicans, compared to 32 percent as Democrats. Indeed, the headline of the Pew study confirmed a trend that many political planners know to be a fact: many more voters are identifying as independents these days – a whopping 39 percent, according to Pew Research.
To recap, here’s the national political identity of the American electorate:
Independent - 39%
Democrat - 32%
Republican - 23%
And here are the percentages in the Q poll, from which spinmeisters derived their golden “liar” headline:
Republican - 43%
Democrat - 41%
Independents - 16%
So yes, the Quinnipiac pollsters lean their survey toward Republicans. As the world witnessed when Karl Rove publicly stormed the Fox data bunker on election night in 2012, consumed with a conviction that the actual results were wrong and his polls right, this kind of built-in bias can lead to some embarrassing on-air moments.
But there’s another obvious (and frankly, more ethically troubling) problem with Quinnipiac’s blockbuster “liar” claim. Can you spot it? The pollsters created their descriptive word clouds based on an open-ended question for each respondent. Here’s how they asked it: “What is the first word that comes to mind when you think of Hillary Clinton?”
According to Quinnipiac, 178 respondents answered “liar” in a poll that – wait for it – had 666 registered Republicans taking part. Other popular negative answers included “bitch,” “Benghazi,” and “criminal.” Of course, the Quinnipiac pollsters took pains to separate the Republican answers from the Democratic and Independent answers to make sure their report was fair, professionally ethical and represented a clear picture of general voting attitudes, right?
Quinnipiac lumps all the responses together and places the innocent-sounding “voters” label on the entire thing. To anyone who’s followed American politics for five minutes, the common negative answers volunteered by “voters” in the Q poll clearly come from the Republican respondents, who repeat the words from right-wing radio, Fox News, conservative pundits, and sexist organizations like American Rising.
For Quinnipiac not to break down the political ideology of the answers to the open-ended question and to present “liar” as representative of the general American voting public raises serious ethical questions about their polling work.
But of course, that’s how the spin cycle works and how it’s specifically aimed at the most viable Democratic female presidential candidate in U.S. history.
Cue the analysts and pundits and their anti-Hillary word clusters:
Politico – Can Hillary overcome the 'liar' factor?
ABC News – Poll: 'Liar' Most Frequently Associated Word With Hillary Clinton
Drudge – Q-POLL: 'Liar, Dishonest' Most Used to Describe Hillary
The Hill – Poll: Most voters associate Hillary Clinton with the word "liar"
Yet what they’re reporting on is really just the language used by angry Republicans to describe a powerful Democratic woman. It’s almost entirely a canned response representing the harshest conservative views toward Hillary, fueled by hundreds of millions of dollars of conservative research from the likes of Crossroads and the Kochs. But that’s how this cynical game works. It’s a planned infection and it’s simple to trace the source and watch it spread. We’ve described the process in detail, explaining how conventional wisdom about Hillary is manufactured:
The 2016 presidential race has been a display of semantic gymnastics, with a dictionary’s worth of adjectives devoted to coverage of Hillary Clinton. These terms (cold, calculating, defiant, testy, secretive, etc.) appear as word clusters in the media – created, transmitted and repeated for maximum persuasion. They are amplified through social channels and rapidly congeal into conventional wisdom.
The mainstream media are prime purveyors of these word clusters, providing a dissemination platform for reporters, columnists, pundits, politicians, political operatives and insiders to indoctrinate the public through endless repetition of specific words and storylines.
A recursive loop is created when these media outlets poll the public and find the word clusters being repeated – the polls are then used to validate and justify further such coverage. The cycle continues as the very same media sources who initiated the loop pivot to an outsider's view and report on the regurgitated words and storylines as though they had nothing to do with creating and spreading them.
Pretending to be objective observers, these outlets now lament the repetition they caused. "Hillary haunted by email story" was an MSNBC headline. Well, who exactly is haunting her? Isn't MSNBC stoking the story by talking about it incessantly? The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza asserts: "For the second straight week, the Democratic presidential frontrunner found the private e-mail server that she used during her time as a Secretary of State at the center of a national conversation." What Cillizza fails to report is that he has been one of the journalists working overtime to place the story squarely in the middle of the national conversation.
Feigning neutrality and reporting on the effect of their own reporting is like repeatedly hitting someone then asking why they keep getting hit.
This iterative process of fabricating conventional wisdom, which has been the domain of corporate media for decades, has not been slowed by the advent of social media. If anything, the democratization of opinion has accelerated the reach and influence of the big media gatekeepers, who inject memes into the national bloodstream and happily watch them spread.
Politico acknowledges that negative perceptions of Hillary are anything but organic:
While Republicans have been test-driving attacks against Clinton for a year and a half, no other line of attack has broken through to this degree.
In a widely-shared #HillaryMen analysis about Karl Rove’s shadowy half-billion dollar effort to distort Hillary’s public image, we wrote:
The goal is to indoctrinate the public with anti-Hillary narratives, to insert carefully tested negative memes into the public debate. It is a form of mental manipulation, intended to discourage critical thinking and create predetermined biases in the minds of voters. So far, Hillary has withstood decades of such coordinated attacks, emerging stronger than ever for this presidential run. That doesn’t mean these GOP brainwashing tactics aren’t a serious threat.
Those calling Hillary a liar have absolutely no basis in reality for their views. They are simply parroting what pundits and reporters are feeding them. The process is as simple as it is ugly and effective: the media and commentariat incessantly repeat that Hillary is hiding something with her emails, that she is unethical and dishonest, or at least appears to be. They ramble on hour after hour, day after day smearing her, attacking her character. Then, lo and behold, polls find the public regurgitating those attacks and a renewed frenzy commences from the very same people who started the process, saying “look, look, the public agrees with us!”
Admittedly, it’s a tactic that works and can do damage. What doesn’t work is Democrats going wobbly based on shoddy polling, unethical coverage and gender-biased commentary.
As #HillaryMen, we’re playing the long game through the second Tuesday of next November and we’d urge supporters of Hillary and the Democratic cause to do the same. This is a steel cage death match for the highest office in the land. Bill Clinton didn’t get there in a cakewalk. Barack Obama fought every step of the way and earned the presidency. And he made history in the process. As a woman, Hillary Clinton will have to fight even harder, work even more tirelessly, withstand even more vicious attacks.
Those who support that quest to break the highest and toughest glass ceiling should put on the armor and steel their spines for the long haul. These attacks will get worse. #HillaryMen will be there.
Peter Daou and Tom Watson founded #HillaryMen to provide actionable analysis of the 2016 campaign focusing on the gender barrier in U.S. politics. Peter is a former senior digital adviser to Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Global Initiative. He is a veteran of two presidential campaigns (Kerry '04 and Clinton '08). Tom is an author and Columbia University lecturer who advises companies and non-profits on social activism.