FiveThirtyEight

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll of the week

President Trump’s tweets often dominate news coverage, particularly on cable news. But let’s be honest: We here at FiveThirtyEight have occasionally written about them too. What is more, well, newsworthy than the words of the chief executive of one of the world’s most powerful nations? And since politicians are known for boring, repetitive, long-winded speeches, what could be a better political platform than one that literally forbids using more than 280 characters at a time? Twitter seems good for Trump, too: As his allies often say, it gives the president a way to speak directly to the American electorate, getting around the media’s filter. Trump’s Twitter account is followed by 52 million people, not that far off from the nearly 63 million who voted for him in 2016.

But some data released this week should give Trump and his supporters pause about the power of his Twitter account in directly reaching American voters — and push the media to think carefully about its coverage of Trump’s tweets. Only 8 percent of U.S. adults say they follow Trump’s Twitter account (@realDonaldTrump), and only 4 percent say they follow his account and regularly read the president’s tweets, according to a new Gallup poll. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 250 million Americans are age 18 or older. So Trump’s Twitter followers, based on the Gallup data, are about 20 million Americans of voting age. And the real consumers of his tweets are about 10 million.

Twenty million people isn’t nothing. Neither is 10 million. It’s more people than read FiveThirtyEight most days or watch any of the network news programs. But it’s nowhere close to the 52 million followers Twitter says he has. And it’s a small share of the roughly 325 million people who live in the U.S. or even the more than 137 million people who voted in the 2016 presidential election.

Of course, the Gallup number is just one poll, but it makes for a more realistic estimate of Trump’s Twitter audience than his official follower count. Twitter estimates that it has more than 69 million total users in the U.S., but we know that many Twitter accounts, particularly those who follow celebrities like Trump, are bots or otherwise fake. Also, remember that people of all ages and people outside of the U.S. can use Twitter. So Trump’s 52 million followers surely include some American teenagers, as well as, say, Brazilian or Japanese citizens who care about his decisions. Third, Gallup’s estimate that 26 percent of American adults have Twitter accounts is fairly close to the results of a 2016 Pew Research Center poll that found 21 percent of U.S. adults were Twitter users.

In any case, here’s why this data matters: If Trump is really speaking to 10 or 20 million American adults with his tweets, then they’re not really a means of directly reaching the American electorate at large. (Gallup estimates that just 15 percent of Republicans follow Trump on Twitter, so he’s not even directly reaching much of his base.) This data argues for treating Trump’s tweets more like presidential statements to elites, the press and other fairly politically engaged people.

Such statements may still be important. But Trump is not really getting around the media filter via Twitter if so few voters are actually seeing his messages on the platform itself.

The Gallup report makes me think that Trump’s tweets should be covered more — not less — carefully by the press. If Trump’s tweets were just appeals to his political base, one that we know is susceptible to believing falsehoods like the claim that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S., that might argue that the tweets should be taken, well, seriously but not literally. If, on the other hand, these tweets are reaching a fairly small actual audience but are heavily influencing media coverage, that would suggest the actual messages in the tweets matter more. When I covered Obama as a White House reporter for The Washington Post, I was more interested in what he told small, elite audiences (Democratic congressional leaders, for example) than what he told crowds at rallies, as he was usually more candid and described his political strategy in more detail in the former settings.

It’s worth considering whether we think of Twitter as Trump’s megaphone and bully pulpit but it’s really his inside voice — Trump’s version of the off-record meetings with influential journalists that past presidents used to shape the views of other insiders.

Other Polling Nuggets

Trump approval rating

On Monday of this week, Trump’s approval rating hit 42.4 percent, the highest level since last May, before the firing of then-FBI Director James Comey. It had slipped slightly by the end of this week, to 42.3 percent. On May 7, about two weeks ago, Trump’s disapproval rating was below 52 percent for the first time since last May. It is now up to 52.3 percent.

Generic ballot

The Democrats are at 45.3 percent in the generic congressional ballot, their lowest standing since last June. But they remain about 6 points ahead of the Republicans, who are at 39.5 percent. Polls suggest that about 15 percent of voters are undecided on which party they will back in the midterms, and that bloc is looking increasingly important.

CORRECTION (May 22, 1 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly described the results of a YouGov poll of residents of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. The survey asked how much extra time respondents had during Ramadan and how they spent that time, but it did not ask how much additional time they spent watching TV during Ramadan.


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