I’m now just finishing W. Joseph Campbell’s book “Lost in a Gallup: Polling Failure in U.S. Presidential Elections.” [Full review forthcoming at Civitas] Given that President Donald Trump has consistently trailed in the polls going into the 2020 presidential election, there has been a lot of talk about “shy Trump voters.” These supposed voters are individuals that don’t tell pollsters that they are going to vote for Trump. Perhaps they refuse to answer that question or avoid responding to polls altogether. Perhaps they are embarrassed given Trump’s public perception in the media or perhaps they just feel their vote is nobody’s business or lie. Like most institutions today, trust in public opinion polling continues to wane.
A simple Google search of “shy Trump voters” produces a wealth of content either denouncing or defending the theory. Certainly, a lot of his supporters cling to this belief as proof that a victory is possible or even likely. As I mentioned earlier, it may be harder for a four-year incumbent to produce a significant amount of shy voters but in the case of Trump, it can’t be dismissed.
“Lost in a Gallup” has an entire chapter on how the public polling missed Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980. It’s a great read. Polling essentially had the race a tie headed into the election and Reagan ended up winning by 10 percent and the former governor of California piled up 489 electoral votes to Jimmy Carter’s 49. Obviously, no landslide of that magnitude awaits Trump but Campbell does point out how shy voters played a role in Reagan’s historic victory:
Carter and his administration officials sought to portray Reagan as unproven and unpredictable —a warmonger, even. Such rhetoric may have contributed to what Burns Roper suggested was a covert or shy Reagan effect that contributed to the polls failing to detect the depth of of his support. In other words, respondents declined to tell pollsters they were going to vote for Reagan, a former Hollywood actor before serving two terms as California governor. Many lifelong Democrats could not abide voting for Carter in 1980, Roper said, but they “weren’t about to admit they could actually bring themselves to vote for Reagan, saying they would probably end up voting for Carter, when in fact they knew they were going to vote the other way.” (p. 116)
Younger Americans might forget how negatively Reagan was portrayed by the media and that the seeds were planted that he would start a nuclear holocaust if elected. During the campaign, Carter declared that Reagan would bring about the “alienation of black from white, Christian from Jew, rich from poor, and North from South.” Carter even tried to enlist then Sen. Ted Kennedy to attack Reagan as anti-Catholic, something too appalling even for him to consider.
More from Campbell on shy voters in the 1980 campaign:
Other analysts also pointed to evidence that suggested a “shy Reagan” effect. Fred Barnes, a political commentator writing for the Baltimore Sun, noted that even as a gubernatorial candidate in California, Reagan typically had run “better on Election Day than in pre-election polls, which suggests that some voters are shy about admiting their support for an ex-actor but not as hestiant about voting for him.” (p. 117)