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Deez Nuts, explained

Donald Trump is no longer the least serious candidate in the race.
Donald Trump is no longer the least serious candidate in the race.
Josiah Kamau/BuzzFoto via Getty Images

The 2016 presidential race has already had its share of crazy developments — the most momentous of which has been Donald Trump reaching the top of the Republican field and staying there for weeks. But this month saw another not-very-serious candidate get surprisingly strong poll results.

According to Federal Election Commission filings, Deez Nuts lives in Iowa and is running for president as an independent. And polls show him getting at least 7 percent of the vote in Minnesota, Iowa, and North Carolina.

Nuts, of course, isn't a real person. But a real polling firm has been including him in real polls. And the results tell us something about the state of the presidential race — and Trump's prospects for winning the presidency.

Who is Deez Nuts?

People have been using "deez nuts" as a vulgar slang term at least since it was used in a 1992 hip-hop song. But use of the term soared in March 2015. That's when a video of internet personality welvendagreat saying "deez nuts" into a cellphone and laughing uproariously was posted on YouTube. The video went viral, racking up 17 million views and spawning an internet catchphrase. Google searches for the term "deez nuts" skyrocketed:

Google Trends

Then 15-year-old Iowan Brady Olson had the kind of idea you'd expect a 15-year-old to have: He decided to launch a Deez Nuts for president campaign. He filed FEC form 2, the official form for launching a presidential campaign, and entered fictional information about the candidate. Mr. Nuts supposedly lives at 2248 450th Avenue, in Wallingford, Iowa. He's running as an independent.

For the first week after this filing, the Deez Nuts for president campaign didn't get much attention. But then the campaign caught the attention of the polling firm Public Policy Polling.

"It started because somebody emailed us under the name Deez Nuts," PPP's Jim Williams told the Daily Beast. "He said, ‘I’m Deez Nuts. I’m running. Here’s my filing statement. Would you poll me?’"

PPP said yes.

Where does Deez Nuts stand in the polls?

So far, the polling firm has tested Nuts's support in three states. On August 4, Nuts got 8 percent of the vote in Minnesota, in a three-way matchup with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. A few days later he did almost as well in the crucial early-caucus state of Iowa, where he got 7 percent in the same three-way matchup. Then on Wednesday Nuts got his best result yet: 9 percent in North Carolina.

Beyond these top-line numbers, PPP has released a wealth of information about the extent and limits of Nuts's support. As you'd expect for an imaginary candidate, Nuts is relatively unknown among voters: 89 percent of Minnesota respondents said they'd never heard of him. Of the 11 percent who had, 8 percent had a negative opinion of him and 3 percent viewed him positively.

Nuts is viewed more favorably on the left than the right — 7 percent of "very liberal" voters viewed him favorably, compared with 6 percent who viewed him unfavorably. By contrast, 96 percent of "very conservative" voters in Minnesota said they'd never heard of Nuts, and the rest were overwhelmingly unfavorable.

Nuts attracted the strongest support from voters under 30 — 11 percent of young Minnesotans said they'd back him over Clinton and Trump. Among voters over 65, just 7 percent backed Nuts. Nuts appeared to draw equally from both parties; he won support from 7 percent of those who voted for Barack Obama in 2012, compared with 8 percent of Romney voters.

Why would a real polling agency poll a fake candidate?

The decision isn't out of character for the firm, which is known for including joke questions alongside serious ones in its polls.

In 2011, PPP determined that God enjoyed a 52 percent approval rating, compared with 9 percent who disapproved. People approved of God's handling of natural disasters by a 50-to-13 ratio, with women rating God more favorably than men.

The same year, we learned that only 19 percent of Republican primary voters predicted that "Barack Obama would be taken up to Heaven in the Rapture," compared with 44 percent who thought he would not. Unsurprisingly, Republicans gave Sarah Palin a better shot: 51 percent thought Palin would be among the elect, while 13 percent predicted she'd get stuck down here with the sinners during the tribulation.

In 2013, PPP revealed that just 16 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of hipsters, compared with 42 percent who have an unfavorable opinion. Forty-six percent of respondents said that hipsters "soullessly appropriate cultural tropes from the past for their own ironic amusement," and 27 percent favored imposing a tax on hipsters for "being so annoying."

In short, PPP loves asking joke questions. Evidently the pollsters believe trolling the public is a good way to drum up interest in their more serious polling efforts.

PPP's joke polls are pretty funny. Are their serious polls any good?

PPP is one of the most prolific Democratic-leaning polling outfits in America, and its results are widely cited in the media. However, there has been some criticism of its methodology. Probably the most thorough was a 2013 critique by the New Republic's Nate Cohn, who argued that PPP's methodology had some serious problems.

Specifically, Cohn argued that PPP adjusts the demographic weighting of its polls in ad hoc and nontransparent ways. Critics suspect they do this to nudge their poll results closer to the average value of other polls. That would make PPP's polls look better, since they'd be less likely to make a big error that would stand out from other polling firms. But it would also be misleading readers, who expect pollsters results to be independent of the results of other firms.

To be clear, there's no proof that PPP has done this. When pressed on the issue, PPP has been noncommittal.

What does Nuts's 7 to 9 percent support say about the presidential race?

The main lesson is that it's a mistake to read too much into polls — especially polls this far in advance of an election. Here are three ways to interpret the surprisingly high name recognition and support for an imaginary candidate:

  • Most voters are not political junkies. They are not following every twist and turn of a political race, and many don't even start paying attention to who the candidates are until a few weeks before the vote. Yet people also don't want to look ignorant. So when a pollster asks them about a candidate they haven't heard of, they may pick an answer at random rather than admitting they're not familiar with the candidate.
  • Voters may also have viewed Nuts as a generic protest candidate. While Nuts isn't widely known, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are two of the most famous personalities in American politics. So a voter who doesn't like either Trump or Clinton might be inclined to choose a third candidate they've never heard of as a way of signaling their disgust with the major-party options.
  • "Deez Nuts" is funny. Poll respondents may have recognized that "Deez Nuts" was a joke candidate and decided to play along. The fact that Nuts enjoyed the strongest support among younger voters — who are likely to be both familiar with internet memes and entertained by a vulgar joke — suggests that many voters just thought it would be funny to say they supported Deez Nuts.

Of course, all three of these observations could also apply to the candidacy of Republican frontrunner Donald Trump. Voters who haven't been paying attention to politics might be choosing Trump because the reality show star is the only name they're familiar with. They might be choosing Trump to signal their disgust with mainstream Republican candidates. And some voters might choose Trump's name because a race with Donald Trump as the frontrunner is funnier than a race in which a real politician leads the pack.

Of course, when the real election arrives next year, Nuts would be unlikely to get 7 percent of the vote even if he were on the ballot. As the election gets closer, voters do start to pay attention and form an opinion about which of the major-party candidates would make a better president. So we should take Nuts's apparent support with a huge grain of salt. And we should exercise skepticism about Trump's apparent lead as well.