With Nov. 3 racing toward us, it can be tempting to see the 2020 election as a done deal. For months, Joe Biden has consistently and convincingly led Donald Trump in polls. Swing states in the industrial Midwest and Sun Belt appear to be heading Biden’s way, and if you trust the polls, it’s not a leap to imagine him winning 330+ electoral votes.
But what if you shouldn’t trust the polls?
In 2016, months of national polls confidently showed Hillary Clinton ahead, and set many Americans up for a shock on Election Night, when the Electoral College tilted decisively in Trump’s favor. Two pollsters who weren’t blindsided by this are Arie Kapteyn and Robert Cahaly. Kapteyn, a Dutch economist who leads the USC’s Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research, oversaw the USC/Los Angeles Times poll that gave Trump a 3-point lead heading into election day—which, Kapteyn notes, was wrong: Clinton won the popular vote by 2 points. Cahaly, a Republican pollster with the Trafalgar Group, had preelection surveys that showed Trump nudging out Clinton in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida and North Carolina—all of which he won.
This year, both men believe that polls could again be undercounting Trump’s support. The reason is “shy” Trump voters—people reluctant to share their opinions for fear of being judged. Though the “shy voter” idea is thrown around a lot by both Trump supporters and Democratic skeptics, Kapteyn and Cahaly have specific insights into why, and how, Trump support might be going undetected.
For Cahaly, those votes are likely to make the difference again. “There’s a lot of hidden Trump votes out there,” he says. “Will Biden win the popular vote? Probably. I’m not even debating that. But I think Trump is likely to have an Electoral College victory.”
As an illustration, Kapteyn described what his team at USC sees in its polls. Beyond simply asking voters whether they support Biden or Trump, USC asks a “social-circle” question—“Who do you think your friends and neighbors will vote for?”—which some researchers believe makes it easier for people to share their true opinions without fear of being judged for their views.
— David Larew (@ThinkTankCharts) October 30, 2020
Here we go again?
Trump's polling now (blue) is inching up in the same way as 2016 (yellow) from about the 3-4 week point to election day pic.twitter.com/thJOsTFslv
— David Ingles (@DavidInglesTV) October 30, 2020