Weeks Ahead of U.S. Presidential Race, Analysts Debate Presumption of a Biden Victory

A Significant Pool of “Shy Trump” Voters May be Skewing pollsters’ Results

As America’s presidential election nears, Washington’s analysts and commentators are scrutinizing the polling data in critical, battleground states with ever increasing intensity. Most polls point toward a Democratic sweep of those states. Contrarians nonetheless note that the polls were similarly lopsided in favor of Hillary Clinton in 2016, and point to evidence of a potentially significant pool of so-called “shy Trump” voters which may be skewing pollsters’ results.
 
THE STATE OF THE RACE 
 
As it currently stands, former Vice President Joe Biden appears to hold a substantial, though not quite commanding, lead over President Trump in the six key battleground states of the 2020 election. According to the RealClearPolitics average of polls, Biden leads Trump by an average of slightly over four percentage points, indicating that Biden is on track for a decisive win in the electoral college. This view is bolstered by the average of national polls, which today give Biden a roughly nine-point lead among the electorate nation-wide. At this point in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s lead in national polling was roughly one-third smaller, at 6.4 points. 
 
President Trump and his supporters tend to dismiss these reports as, premising their hopes on the existence of a “silent majority” which has escaped capture by polling data but whose support for the President can be discerned by enthusiastic public displays. As the President tweeted in July, “The Trump Campaign has more ENTHUSIASM, according to many, than any campaign in the history of our great Country - Even more than 2016. Biden has NONE! The Silent Majority will speak on NOVEMBER THIRD!!! Fake Suppression Polls & Fake News will not save the Radical Left.”
 
The existence of such a group of voters — committed to voting for President Trump, but unwilling to declare as much to pollsters — has been hotly contested among election professionals. Geoffrey Skeller of the 538 Report, firmly in the skeptical camp, describes it as a “theory that won’t die,” asserting that “while there might be a handful of reluctant Trump voters, it’s not on the level of the systemic polling challenges we’ve discussed that could still undersell how much support the president has.”
 
THE “SHY TRUMP EFFECT”: MINIMAL AND MAXIMAL VIEWS 
 
According to Skeller, the weight of analytical opinion holds that silent Trump supporters are a substantial portion of the electorate. The critical questions are how large this bloc of voters is, and in which states they are concentrated. David Wasserman, House editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, offers a minimalist perspective to both questions, observing, “I’d expect the shy-Trump-voter phenomenon to be less of a factor than it was in 2016. There’s no doubt 2020 is a much different picture than 2016. Biden’s lead is broad across the battleground, and it’s more stable than Clinton’s was in 2016.”
 
Others offer a more maximalist view of the potential size of this critical voting bloc. Robert Cahaly, a contrarian analyst heading Trafalgar polling — who, nearly alone among pollsters, believes Trump is likely to prevail in November — offers several reasons to maintain that are many more “shy Trump voters” than is conventionally believed. One such reason is that “conservatives are less likely to participate in polls in general,” he says. “We see a five-to-one refusal rate among conservatives.” That means “you’ve got to work very hard to get a fair representation of conservatives, when you do any kind of a survey.” 
 
Cahaly’s polling is designed to minimize what pollsters term “social-desirability bias,” or the phenomenon in polling when a respondent gives you “an answer that is designed to make the person asking the question less judgmental of the person who answers it.” His firm utilizes a number of means to minimize the effect of this phenomenon, most of which give respondents a greater degree of anonymity. “If it all happened right now,” Cahaly maintains, “my best guess would be an Electoral College victory [for Trump] in the high to 270s, low 280s.”