This Study could Explain the Polling Gap between Trump and Biden

Second presidential debate between Biden, Trump officially canceled

Anyone paying attention to the fast-approaching election knows Trump is trailing Biden, and it’s not even close. However, an August 2020 study by Cloud Research suggests voter preference is narrower than it appears.

“While recent polls show Joe Biden ahead, a number of pundits speculate that some Donald Trump supporters may be hesitant to share their true opinions when polled by phone,” Leib Litman, a researcher from Cloud Research wrote. “That hypothesis is gaining traction, leading some to argue that Trump may be leading despite what the latest numbers show. It’s also being fueled by the belief that 2020 will be a repeat of the 2016 election, when Trump polled poorly in advance of the election, but still went on to win the Electoral College vote.”

He’s not wrong. Republicans have developed a reluctance to trust major state and national polls after their 2016 predictions failed to matriculate. This time four years ago, major pundits would’ve laughed at anyone even hinting at a Trump victory, and that’s because all the polls pointed to a mystic blue wave.

On this date, Clinton was leading Trump by 4% in Florida, 1.6% in Ohio, 8.4% in Pennsylvania, 6.7% in Wisconsin, and 10.7% in Michigan. What do all all of those states have in common? Trump’s campaign came out on top in each race, winning by margins far greater than the margin of error.

Most notably, Trump outperformed in Ohio by 4.6%, based on the Real Clear Politics average, and pulled out a victory in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin despite being down by anywhere from 2% to more than 6% on election day.

How could the polls be so wrong in such crucial states? After all, pollsters have an inherent interest in being as accurate as possible. Litman admits little research has been done on “shy voters” up until this point, leaving pundits to speculate what their impact will be in 20 short days. “For the most part, we expected to find very few ‘shy voters.’ After all, telephone surveys are supposed to be anonymous, so why would people be reluctant to share their opinions?”

Their results did not match their predictions. “11.7% of Republicans say they would not report their true opinions about their preferred presidential candidate on telephone polls,” compared to just 5.4% of Democrats surveyed. In addition, 10.5% of Independents considered themselves to be “shy voters,” expressing a willingness to be dishonest about their preferences to phone pollsters.

Similarly, “10.1% of Trump supporters said they were likely to be untruthful on phone surveys — double the number of Biden supporters (5.1%) reticent to share their true intentions.”

Surveyors also recorded why shy voters wanted to conceal their support, and found a general pattern in the line of reasoning. Cloud Research condensed responses into six main reasons:

  1. A lack of trust in phone polls as truly being anonymous. 
  2. An apprehension to associate their phone numbers with recorded responses.
  3. Fear that their responses will become public in some manner.
  4. Fear of reprisal and related detrimental impact to their financial, social, and family lives should their political opinions become publicly known. 
  5. A general dislike of phone polls. 
  6. Malicious intent to mislead polls due to general distrust of media and political pundits (though a sentiment expressed only by a few “shy voters”). 

Compared to Republicans and Independents, Democratic respondents were far less likely to fear being ousted or doxxed for their political affiliation. Though a few deliberately mislead pollsters, most respondents, especially Republicans, largely fear possible repercussions of others finding out who they’re voting for.

“Given razor thin-margins in the swing states,” Litman concludes, “such bias may have important consequences, although more research is required to fully understand the potential magnitude of this effect.”

Today, Trump is trailing Biden by 9.2%, according to the Real Clear Politics average. In the swing states that matter for reelection, Biden holds a 7% lead in Pennsylvania, a 2.7% lead in Florida, a 6.3% lead in Wisconsin, a 0.6% lead in Ohio, and a 7.2% lead in Michigan. If Litman’s “shy voter” theory holds water, Trump could be in for a surprisingly strong election performance, but it’s a risky move to rely on his silent majority. With 20 days left until November 3rd, anything can happen.



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