When we last left the Republican members of The Politico Caucus, they were spiraling wildly through Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief, having been driven to an emotional meltdown by GOP presidential nominee and sewage-poisoned log flume Donald Trump. A year’s worth of high anxiety and deep frustration had left them clinging to whatever shred of their vaunted expertise could help them make sense of the universe. Pretty bad scene, all around.
But there were still a few weeks left of election cycle to get through, alas! And on Friday they returned to a state of semi-denial and quasi-bargaining, as detailed in a new piece, titled: “GOP insiders: Polls don’t capture secret Trump vote.”
So, the idea here involves the theory that there are “shy Trump voters” out there who, for some reason, don’t like telling pollsters that they plan to vote for the GOP nominee. Why anyone who’d want to vote for Trump would sit around worrying about the judgment of pollsters is beyond me ― Trump voters don’t really seem like awkward wallflowers. But political scientists have noted phenomena like this before.
For instance, there is the famed “Bradley effect,” named for former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, an African-American politician who lost his California gubernatorial bid despite leading in the polls. The theory here is that voters told pollsters that they were going to choose Bradley, just because they felt that was a more socially acceptable answer. Then they actually voted differently.
Not all pollsters and political scientists agree that the “Bradley effect” even exists. But here’s the thing you need to know about it: It’s a theory that was posited to explain a data discrepancy. So if you’re going to talk about “shy Trump voters,” it has to be done in that context. If you’re speculating that a data set ― in this case, Trump’s polling numbers ― may not be telling the whole story, you need to be able to show your work. (It should come as no surprise that people who have attempted to show this work find the “shy Trump theory” wanting.)
But what Politico’s Insiders are doing is something different. See, they’ve obviously heard of the “shy Trump voter” theory, but rather than rigorously analyzing their premises, they are Thought Leadering instead ― taking stray observations and gut feelings and ascribing significance to them. Correlation...must….equal...something, right?
“I’m not sure how big a factor it is, but there is definitely a ‘Bradley effect’ going on out there,” said a Virginia Republican, referring to the African-American mayor of Los Angeles who led in polls but lost unexpectedly in the 1982 California gubernatorial race. “I personally know many Republicans that won’t admit that they are voting for Trump. I don’t like admitting it myself. It won’t matter if Hillary is up more than 5 points, but we might be in for a surprise if Hillary’s lead is less than 5 points on Election Day.”
It really doesn’t matter if you know a bunch of guys who won’t admit they’re voting for Trump, man. “I personally know many [x]” is not a sample size.
A Michigan Republican — who, like all insiders, completed the survey anonymously —added that Trump voters are reticent to admit it publicly: “Anecdotally, that’s clearly the case in barber-shop conversations.”
Conversations in barber shops are not data, bro.
“I see a lot of Trump signs on people’s lawns, plus a lot of anti-Clinton signs,” said a New Hampshire Republican.
Oh, honey. Do you not remember Peggy Noonan, circa Nov. 5, 2012? Let me jog your memory-grapes. She wrote:
And there’s the thing about the yard signs. In Florida a few weeks ago I saw Romney signs, not Obama ones. From Ohio I hear the same. From tony Northwest Washington, D.C., I hear the same.
Is it possible this whole thing is playing out before our eyes and we’re not really noticing because we’re too busy looking at data on paper instead of what’s in front of us?
Now you, anonymous New Hampshire Republican, are making the same mistake.
Can I get a buffet option?
The phenomenon known as social desirability bias “may be part of it,” a Nevada Republican said. “I also think that the pollsters have not accounted for the uniqueness of this election and are not necessarily asking the right questions of the correct samples. Finally, many of the polls are deliberately slanted to suit the media’s political agenda. Taken all together, it’s almost impossible to know who is leading at this point.”
This is fantastic. Pollsters are victims of social desirability bias AND they are not asking the right questions AND they are deliberately misleading people AND they have not calibrated their poll-abacuses to account for this election’s “unique special snowflakeness.” It’s all of these things simultaneously ― because every pollster in America wants to be unemployed in a few weeks’ time, I guess?
There is a big difference in the way the “shy Trump voters theory” adherents and the “shy Trump voters theory” discounters talk about the matter: The discounters seem to have actual polling expertise. To wit:
“Does anyone really care whether or not a survey-taker disapproves of their choice?” a North Carolina Republican asked. “Besides, Trump doesn’t always fare worse in live-caller polls. The IBD/TIPP poll, which has been among the handful of outlier polls more positive to Trump, is after all a live-caller poll. The truth is that Trump’s support is not substantially different in live-caller polls versus IVR and internet panels. Both types of polls have outliers, but the difference is not a significant one.”
Added a Colorado Republican: “In 2012 people said the polls were wrong because voters didn’t want to sound like racists for not voting for President Obama. Polls weren’t wrong. People on the losing side of the polls always invent a reason for it.”
That’s what people who have learned from experience, or read a book, sound like.
Now, many of the Politico Caucus’ Democratic Insiders do not exactly shower themselves in glory, either. Here is my favorite:
And an Iowa Democrat suggested: “I think polls underestimate Clinton’s strength because of the married women who tell their husbands they are for Trump to keep the peace.”
Well, no shit, Sherlock. You know why polls can’t account for “the married women who tell their husbands they are for Trump to keep the peace?” Because pollsters can only account for the people they contact, Sherlock. Pollsters aren’t eavesdropping on the nation’s Pilates classes, listening to Marjorie telling Bryce and Jane about how Susanne is voting for Hillary Clinton but won’t tell her husband about it because he’s a Trump supporter and it would be a whole big thing.
And pollsters don’t have extra sensory perception that allows them to divine what’s secretly going on in every household. At least, I don’t think they do. Hey, Pew Research, what number am I thinking of right now?
Another fun thing about the GOP Insiders is that just about every one of them whose gut is telling them that there are a lot of Trump voters who won’t disclose their intentions to pollsters are also receiving a second, simultaneous transmission from the same gut: Hedge your bets, though!
Despite the widespread belief in the “shy Trump voter” theory, Politico says “a 59-percent majority still say Clinton would win their state if the election were held today,” and that although “a number of Republicans” still “believe that the polls are underestimating Trump,” they simultaneously believe that “his deficit is too large for it to matter.”
As one Insider puts it, in a very definitive assessment: “He’ll outperform the polls but still won’t win.”
So the polls are almost certainly off, but it won’t matter, because look at Clinton’s huge lead in the polls! In the end, the one thing in which this panel of experts truly has demonstrated expertise is the ability to consistently have things both ways. Come Election Day, they’ll all be simultaneously right and wrong. It’s a good gig if you can get it!
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.