With Election Day 2020 just hours away, many are speculating about the accuracy of pre-election polling. One popular theory argues that polls might be wrong because they miss “shy” Trump voters.
As summarized in a recent Politico report, the argument is that some Trump support is “going undetected” because many Trump voters are uniquely “reluctant to share their opinions for fear of being judged”. However, new YouGov polling conducted for Yahoo News casts doubt on the notion that Trump supporters are more likely than Biden supporters to withhold their true opinions.
The theory, raised often as a possible explanation for polling misfires in 2016, has been examined by many researchers, including the 2016 post-election review conducted by the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR), and have found little or no evidence to support it.
One critical component of the shy Trump supporter theory is that the “social discomfort” of sharing their true preference with another person leads some Trump voters to conceal their preference or lie about it. But as the AAPOR report found, surveys conducted by telephone with live interviewers did not under-estimate Trump’s support any more than surveys conducted without interviewers. More recent survey experiments also show similar findings for Trump-vs-Biden vote preference, regardless of whether surveys were conducted with or without live interviewers.
These findings also suggest the self-administered surveys conducted by YouGov provide a good means of gathering additional evidence, so we asked a few questions on two recent surveys that add to the evidence on this issue. The first poll was fielded in early September, the second over the past weekend. Since the findings were nearly identical, we have combined results to take advantage of a larger sample size.
We first asked how “most of your neighbors in the community where you live” would vote for president. The reality is that relatively few Trump supporters are surrounded by Democrats. Nearly two-thirds of Trump supporters (64%) say all or most of their neighbors are voting for Trump, while only 7% say all or most of their neighbors are for Biden. One in ten think their neighbors are evenly split and 19% don’t know how their neighbors will vote.
If anything, Biden supporters may be under more social pressure: Less than half (44%) say all or most of their neighbors are also voting for Biden, while 15% say all or most are for Trump, 14% say the neighbors are split evenly and 26% are not sure.
Of course, these results alone do not disprove the existence of shy Trump voters. Some would argue that they make the opposite case, because our respondents’ guesses about their neighbors preferences add up to a perceived national “lead” for Trump: 35% of all registered voters say most or all of their neighbors are for Trump, 26% say most or all are for Biden, with the rest unsure (25%) or guessing the neighbors are split in their preferences (23%).
So we took the analysis a step further by asking Trump and Biden supporters if their neighbors would be surprised about whom they were supporting, in order to determine whether people were shy enough to keep their neighbors from knowing how they were planning to vote.
The results? Very few said their neighbors would be surprised by their voting intention, with Trump supporters (12%) just two points higher than Biden supporters (10%) – a difference not large enough to be statistically significant. The surprise factor is higher where respondents are cross-pressured, but again, Trump voters whose neighbors mostly support Biden said their choice would surprise their neighbors (31%) only slightly more than Biden voters in Trump supporting neighborhoods (27%). Again, the difference was not large enough to be statistically significant.
Could it be that Trump voters are more reluctant to talk about politics than Biden supporters? About the same number of Biden and Trump supporters (14% and 12% respectively) said they “never” discuss politics with other people. The “never” numbers are not significantly different among Trump and Biden supporters who report most of their neighbors have a different vote preference (11% and 14% respectively).
These results – gleaned from anonymous online surveys with no interviewer involved – tell us that many supporters of both candidates may have reason for social discomfort in discussing their preferred candidate. Nothing here proves Trump supporters are significantly more likely to withhold their true opinions.
Methodology: The Yahoo! News surveys were conducted by YouGov using nationally representative samples US adult residents interviewed online between September 9 - 11 (n=1,577) and October 30 - November 1, 2020 (n=1,501 registered voters). These samples were weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the US Bureau of the Census, as well as 2016 Presidential vote, registration status, and news interest.