Arnon Mishkin: Does a 'shy Trump voter' exist?

President Trump addresses inaccurate polling and optimism for 2020 election

President Donald Trump on concerns over mail-in voting and the presidential election.

While President Trump trails presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden by 7 points in the most recent Fox News poll, many people argue that surveys underestimate support for the incumbent – and that he’s likely to do far better in the final vote. Some go so far as to say that people who are going to vote for Trump actually merely pretend to be “undecided” and are just deliberately lying to pollsters. There’s even a name for it: The “shy Trump voter.”

“Shy Trump?” Are you kidding? What is possibly shy about Trump? Look in the dictionary under “oxymoron” (a figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction), and I bet you’ll find “shy Trump” as an example.

But that’s precisely what some folks argue happened in 2016. Trump did about 2 points better in the popular vote than expected — the last average of national polls showed Hillary Clinton winning by 4 points, and she only won the popular vote by 2 – and many state polls showed her winning states that she wound up losing by a narrow margin.

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Is there such a thing as a “shy Trump” voter — someone who knows that they’re going to be voting for Trump — that is willing to tell a stranger (a pollster) their education, religion, income and somehow, when it comes to their vote, deliberately “lie.” I don’t think so.

The notion of voters deliberately lying to pollsters to the 1982 California Gubernatorial campaign, when Tom Bradley was seeking to become the first African American to serve as governor since reconstruction. Bradley was leading in all the polls but wound up losing to the Republican George Deukmejian. People came up with a theory, the “Bradley effect,” that respondents were hiding their intentions in order not to be considered racist.

I’d argue that it’s not that voters were lying — it’s that they hadn’t yet made up their minds. As it happens, in 1982 I was working at the firm running Bradley’s campaign — and that was certainly the way the folks working on the campaign analyzed it. In the last days of that campaign, Deukmejian’s campaign manager caused a scandal by saying that many of the undecided voters weren’t going to vote for Bradley because they were just not going to vote for someone who was Black.

The manager quickly “resigned.” The media thought it would hurt the Deukmejian campaign, but the Bradley consultant in my office said ‘they haven’t seen our tracking polls — Deukmejian’s been creeping up since the story.” If they were lying, they’d have continued lying. Instead, the consultant thought the scandal made some undecided voters focus on why they uncomfortable voting for Bradley (and they started moving from undecided to Deukmejian).

So when I think about whether there’s a “shy Trump vote,” I’d include both folks who might be lying (there aren’t many) as well as undecided folks who haven't made up their minds — but still are essentially saying “I know I’m not ready to vote for the Democrat.”

That’s certainly what was going on in 2016. Despite a deluge of Trump personal scandals and a decline in his support, Clinton was holding steady in the polling. If an undecided voter wasn’t ready to say they were voting for Clinton after the Access Hollywood tape and numerous other stories came out, just when would they be ready to say it?

How many of the “undecided” voters are likely to swing to President Trump — or will they stay home or go to Biden?

In the end, the 2016 undecided voter was never ready … and the vast majority swung to Trump and gave him the White House. But whenever someone said that in October, folks would argue that they were just spinning for the Trump.

Could something similar be going on this year? How many of the “undecided” voters are likely to swing to President Trump — or will they stay home or go to Biden?

To answer that, I took a close look at the voters who are not currently either in Trump or Biden’s camp. I call them the “persuadables.” This includes voters who say they “don’t know,” say they will not vote, or say they’ll vote for a third-party candidate.

Across the four most recent Fox News polls, slightly more than one in 10 respondents fall into one of those three groups, while almost nine out of 10 have decided they’re voting for Trump or Biden. With Biden hovering at just below 50% in the Real Clear Politics averages, a swing of a large chunk of these persuadable voters to Trump could enable Trump to eke out a win in the Electoral College in November.

But are they likely to swing?

Among the undecided, there are several who, even today, one can look at and believe that they’re likely to in the end wind up in a particular camp. A quarter of them approve of the job Trump is doing as president, and 30% are Republicans. Presumably, the vast majority of those voters will wind up “going home” to the incumbent by the time the campaign is over. 

Similarly, a quarter say they’re Democrats, and 10% are African American. Most of them, too, will likely “go home” to the Democratic Party by the time the campaign is over. That leaves a little less than half of the “persuadables” where it’s hard to predict their final vote.

The greatest problem for Trump: Over six out of 10 so-called “persuadables” say they disapprove of the job the president has been doing. In order to win them over, he presumably needs to do something that will change their view of his performance.

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Still, four out of 10 of "persuadables" call themselves Independent, not aligned with either Democrats or Republicans, and a similar number say they’re politically moderate.

Those moderates and Independents are likely to be the focus of the last two and a half months of this campaign. In 2016, Trump closed his campaign with a two-week sprint highlighted both by a reopening of the Clinton email investigation and by Trump closely following a very “presidential style” script (with very few of the off-the-cuff comments and gaffes that had highlighted the bulk of his campaign). This allowed Trump to eke out a win. If he is to come from behind again this year, he will need to figure out a way to reach out to the moderate and Independent voter.

The bottom line: combining the results of the polling to date and a look at the "persuadables," Trump is clearly at a real disadvantage.

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That said, a close look at those voters suggests there are clear opportunities for Trump to close the gap with Biden, and even, potentially to eke out another Electoral College win in November.

Are there many “shy Trump voters” – folks who know they’re voting for Trump and just aren’t saying. I doubt it. But there may be a pool of voters who are very likely to vote for him but haven’t decided for sure just yet.

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