Throughout the 2016 presidential election cycle, supporters of Republican Donald Trump have argued that Trump’s support in poll after poll has been underestimated due to the phenomenon of the “shy” Trump voter — that is, voters who support Trump in secret, perhaps too afraid of disapproval to honestly state their preference for Trump to pollsters.
But is the “shy Trump voter” effect real? And could it actually tip the election — now just six days away — in favor of Trump, even though most polls show him trailing Democrat Hillary Clinton nationally?
The answers to those questions, according to a new study released Wednesday by polling firm Morning Consult and the online magazine Politico, says the answers to those questions are yes — and no.
Yes — “shy” Trump voters exist, mostly among voters with a college education and voters in higher income brackets. But, the study found, no — there are not enough of the shy Trump supporters to turn the election in Trump’s favor.
The Morning Consult/Politico poll study does not predict who will win the election, concluding only that shy Trump voters will not be the difference-makers one way or the other.
The “shy” voter phenomenon is known in technical terms as “social desirability bias,” which means the supposed tendency of voters to lie to pollsters about which candidate they support, because they are embarrassed to admit their preference for one reason or another.
The new study comes less than a week before the election but is not the first to debunk the shy Trump voter theory. A study in October conducted by the market-based election-predicting site PredictWise came to a similar conclusion.
Both studies compared the results of polls taken via live, person-to-person telephone interviews with results garnered from internet surveys, in which poll respondents can simply check a box online, never forced to admit their support for Trump to another human being.
The October 7 Predictwise concluded that a) “Clinton is winning no matter how the data is sliced.”
And b) “Trump is relatively stable between live person and machine.”
A Washington Post study published a few weeks later, on October 25 also concluded that “shy” Trump support was small, if it existed at all, finding “no hint of a silent majority that withholds its opinions from pollsters but will nevertheless turn out to vote for Donald Trump on Election Day.”
But the more recent study by Politico and Morning consult did, in fact, discover that social desirability bias is a real phenomenon among Trump supporters — just that there are not nearly enough of the so called “shy” Trump voters to overcome his current polling deficit.
The study surveyed 2,075 “likely” voters — Democrats, Republicans and independents — in late October, dividing the polls between online and surveys and direct, telephone interviews.
Among the voters reached by phone by Morning Consult pollsters, Clinton led Trump with 52 percent of the prospective vote to 47 percent for Trump.
But among voters who instead filled out an anonymous online poll — which presumably would allow them to express their support for Trump without fear of disapproval from another person — the numbers shifted only one percentage point, with Trump collecting 48 percent to 51 percent for Clinton.
“Trump’s one point gain with voters online versus on the phone is statistically insignificant and within the poll’s margin of error of 3 percent,” the study’s authors explained.
But those findings, the authors reported, do not mean that shy Trump voters do not exist. They do, the survey found — among more educated and more financially secure voters.
“It’s become socially desirable, if you’re a college-educated person in the US, to say that you’re against Donald Trump,” Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway said recently — and apparently, she’s right.
In telephone interviews, college graduates told pollsters that they support Trump at a rate of 39 percent — with 60 percent of those possessing a college education backing Clinton, or at least claiming they do.
But college-educated voters allowed to take the anonymous online poll apparently felt freer to let their Trump flag fly. In the Morning Consult online-only poll, 46 percent of those with a college degree backed Trump, while Clinton’s support dropped to 53 percent.
A similar trend existed among voters whose households bring in more than $50,000 per year in income, with 44 percent of that group supporting Trump by phone, but 50 percent online.
In fact, in the online poll of voters from $50,000-plus households, Trump actually edged Clinton. The Democrat won just 49 percent of those voters.
But even taking the educated, more well-to-do shy Trump supporters into account, no secret Trump majority exists — at least according to the Morning Consult/Politico findings.
“Donald Trump has insisted for months that polls are failing to capture the breadth of his support because some of his backers won’t admit it to a pollster over the telephone,” Politico wrote in its summary of the new study. “He’s wrong. …A hidden army of Trump voters that’s undetected by the polls is unlikely to materialize on Election Day.”
“Social desirability bias” is also sometimes known as “the Bradley effect.” The nickname derives from a 1982 gubernatorial election in which polls showed that Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, a Democrat — an an African-American — led his Republican opponent George Deukmejian.
But when election day rolled around, the Republican won the governor’s race, leading some political pundits to theorize that voters told pollsters they would vote for Bradley when they intended not to, because they feared being perceived as racists.
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