It’s been fun the last couple of months to monitor the many excuses Trump supporters have marshaled to dismiss the polling trough POTUS has been in for most of the summer. The polls were wrong in 2016! (Not really, unless you forget Trump lost the popular vote by more than two points.) He’s as popular as Obama! (Actually, he’s never come close to the job approval ratings his predecessor had just prior to the 2012 election.) He’s like Harry Truman, the straight-talker who shocked the world! (No, he’s not, for multiple reasons.)
So some spinners rely on a hardy perennial that is hard to rebut because it requires proving a negative: the Shy Trump Voter Theory. It’s borrowed from a legitimate, if sometimes exaggerated, British phenomenon — the Shy Tory Factor, or the reluctance of UK voters to tell pollsters they intend to vote for the Conservative Party. But you can’t just transfer it across the pond and assert it holds true for Republicans generally and Trump fans specifically. Yes, in theory at least, the idea that “social desirability bias” might make some Trump voters reluctant to disclose they plan to vote for a crude and thuggish man like the president is plausible. But on the other hand, doesn’t Trump’s base glory in being “politically incorrect,” and in “owning the libs”? Didn’t Salena Zito teach us that they take Trump “seriously but not literally,” having a good perspective on their warrior-king’s outlandish traits?
Still, the Shy Trump Voter Theory keeps popping up in the agitprop of those who want to dismiss Biden’s lead, such as Republican pollster Robert Cahaly of the Trafalgar Group (per Tom Bevan):
Cahaly’s survey, using the same methodology he employed four years ago but with an enhanced system for targeting likely voters, shows the race in Michigan as extremely competitive. The pollster also continues to see signs of “shy” or “reluctant” Trump voters in the electorate. Known as “social desirability bias,” it refers to the effect of respondents not telling the truth about whom they will vote for because they think their choice will be viewed unfavorably by others, including those conducting the survey. In a phone interview today, Cahaly said the social desirability bias he is seeing is “worse than it was four years ago.”
Cahaly’s claims notwithstanding, the research on this subject, particularly as conducted by the American Association for Public Opinion Research, is not ambiguous: The Shy Trump Voter may not be entirely a myth, but they’re not numerous enough to fill a Trump rally, much less change an election result or rebut a poll, as Ariel Edwards-Levy reports:
Voters who made up their minds in the last week before the 2016 election, the AAPOR report concludes, broke heavily toward Trump, especially in the key states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida. In another survey, when voters were asked both before and after the election whom they supported, those who gave inconsistent answers disproportionately moved toward Trump. Theoretically, that could indicate that many of those supposed late deciders were instead Trump supporters concealing their stance until the last minute.
But a number of other tests conducted to assess that possibility, the report found, “yielded no evidence to support it.”
To make a long story short, undecided voters, particularly in the states that won Trump his inside-straight victory in the Electoral College, broke heavily for Trump at the last minute. They weren’t hiding their voting intention; it hadn’t really been formed.
Could that happen again this November? Sure, in theory it could, though typically undecided voters don’t tend to break in favor of universally known incumbents like Trump. Right now the right track/wrong track polling numbers that reflect assessments of the status quo are extremely negative, as one might expect in the middle of a pandemic and a sharp economic contraction. Barring some really massive change in public health and economic conditions, a Trump “surprise” is just not very likely.
Yes, there was a documented problem in 2016 with lower polling participation by the white non-college-educated voters who represent a big part of Trump’s base. But some pollsters have corrected that problem by weighting results to compensate for it, and it can’t explain away Biden leads across various polling outfits and methodologies.
All in all, Trump media fans would be better advised to stop with their efforts that emulate the president’s disdain for facts and evidence and instead argue that a critical share of the electorate will achieve satori by November and realize how lucky they are to have a real estate speculator and reality TV star running the country. It’s not a very reliable prediction, but it’s sounder than the idea that Trump can create the winning margin out of thin air.