Donald Trump and many of his supporters insist that current polls underestimate his chances of re-election because many Trump voters do not reveal their support. As in 2016, the argument goes, shy or hidden Trump supporters will show up in sufficient numbers on election day and make Trump the winner.
The public seems to agree. A recent Gallup poll shows 56% of Americans believe President Trump will win, while only 40% believe Democrat Joe Biden will win. Still, most election analysts say Trump’s undeclared voter did not exist in significant numbers in 2016 and does not exist now.
Our research, however, shows that this group was large enough in 2016 to affect polls conducted in the weeks leading up to Trump’s election. But it also suggests that 2020 is a different situation. While Trump may do better on November 3 than current polls suggest, we found no evidence of any hidden Trump supporters this time around.
In 2016, like other analysts, we did not find shy Trump-supporters who decided to vote Trump but intentionally kept it from pollsters, but there was more to tell.
A significant portion of Trump’s supporters that year could best be described as hidden, not shy. For all intents and purposes, these voters had made a decision, but they continued to deliberate. It is a common experience when we make decisions. When we have time before we need to commit, we usually continue to weigh the pros and cons just to be sure. You can see it with high school kids who are starting to wear their future college t-shirts, but haven’t sent the deposit check yet, or with restaurant patrons who can’t decide on an entree and ask. then to order last only to make the predictable choice. .
The same process worked among a significant segment of Trump voters in 2016. These were mostly moderate Republicans who had indeed decided but, perhaps because of many Trump controversies, felt slightly uncertain and decided. continued to express their uncertainty instead of indicating that they were planning to vote for Trump. .
In October 2016, we ran two national polls that asked, if you MUST choose, which presidential candidate do you find most honest: Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton? Unsurprisingly, those who said they voted for Clinton thought Clinton was more truthful, and those who said they voted for Trump thought Trump was more truthful.
But a significant portion of respondents did not say whether they intended to vote for Trump or Clinton. For those undecided, the question of the truth gave a good indication of where they had settled: they leaned heavily towards Trump.
In fact, using the answers to the truthful question as a measure of candidate support brought the results of the two October polls to less than 1% of the final vote. Some have suggested that these voters were late decision makers. But if they were really undecided, we would expect them to support Clinton as often as Trump. Instead, even in early October, we were able to detect their support for Trump.
Even though the final national polls ended up being pretty accurate in 2016, our data suggests that these hidden supporters would have given Trump a roughly 2% increase in the first polls in October had they been included.
Will history repeat itself? We believe the answer is no.
First, almost all survey respondents are currently indicating their intention to vote. According to a recent CNN poll, only 3% of respondents indicated their support for neither Biden nor Trump. In contrast, a CNN poll conducted around the same time in 2016 had 14% indicating no support for Clinton or Trump.
Second, in a recent survey by Reality Check Insights, we randomly assigned half of respondents the veracity question we used in 2016 (updated to Biden and Trump), while half of respondents received a new question: if you MUST choose, which presidential candidate do you find the most energetic? We chose energetic because this issue was emphasized by both candidates, but the objective reality is impossible to know. Thus, responses are likely to signal an underlying voting intention to voters, even if they are still deliberating internally.
For those two questions, we haven’t found any nudge for Trump. Whether we used the standard voting intent question or incorporated our questions designed to detect hidden Trump supporters, we found around 55% support for Biden and around 45% support for Trump (on the share of votes to two parties).
The bottom line? If Trump outclasses the polls this time around, it won’t be because hidden supporters made a difference.
Peter K. Enns is Associate Professor of Government at Cornell University, Executive Director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research and Co-Founder of Reality Check Insights. @pete_enns Jonathon P. Schuldt is Associate Professor of Communication at Cornell University and a member of the board of trustees of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. @JonathonSchuldt
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