The American presidential campaign is about to begin in earnest. The last six months have been particularly volatile and wrenching, with the havoc and dislocation wreaked by the coronavirus pandemic, social movements mobilizing around issues of racial identity, and discussions of cancel culture and political correctness. Against this backdrop, how ought we interpret polling data on the November presidential election? Jon Rogowski, an Associate Professor in the Department of Government at Harvard University, discusses the evidence to support claims that a ‘silent majority’ will rescue the chances for President Trump to secure a re-election victory.
This month, America’s two major political parties gathered—remotely, of course, given the pandemic—to officially nominate their candidates for president and vice-president. Modern party conventions are more celebration than deliberation, mostly intended to excite party supporters and generate media attention for each party’s nominees. While little noteworthy news is likely to come from the conventions, their conclusion on the night of August 27 marks the traditional beginning to the fall campaign season. From there, the campaign for the presidency begins in earnest.
This timeline may surprise some observers. After all, the 2020 presidential campaign has been among the longest in American history. Two Democrats announced their presidential candidacies as far back as 2017, and 26 others later joined them in competing for the Democratic nomination. On the Republican side, President Donald Trump formally began his re-election campaign in summer 2019. Yet many Americans do not follow politics closely, and the Americans whose votes could be most critical in determining the election outcome this fall may not yet have given much thought to whom they will support.
Just because all Americans do not zealously follow electoral politics does not mean, however, that pollsters do not attempt to measure their political views. In fact, we are awash in public opinion data. Nearly every day, new headlines declare the results of the most recent poll meant to assess the state of the presidential race. For the last year, Joe Biden has consistently led Donald Trump in the polls by a margin that has ranged between four and eleven percentage points.
What should we make of the polls conducted to this point in the election cycle? Once more Americans begin tuning in to the presidential race, will these polls hold up when the votes are cast? Two schools of thought offer guidance for interpreting 2020 election polls. On the one hand, polls in recent presidential election cycles have been increasingly accurate. Polls especially tend to increase in accuracy following the convention season—roughly where we are today. And the national polls conducted in 2016 were more accurate than they ever had been in the history of modern polling.
On the other hand, many pollsters incorrectly forecast that Hillary Clinton, and not Donald Trump, would win the 2016 presidential election. (Note, however, that Clinton did win the popular vote, which is what national polls are designed to predict.) Yet for some, this miscalculation fuels skepticism toward polling results. Instead, some argue that polls are mischaracterizing the state of the 2020 presidential election due to a the existence of “shy Trump voters.” This claim supposes that voters who intend to support Trump are misrepresenting their support for him when contacted by pollsters, or else are refusing the opportunity to participate in polls. Earlier this month, President Trump himself seized upon the “shy Trump voter” claim to argue that he has the support of “a silent majority, the likes of which nobody has seen.”
On its face, the claim that Trump’s support exceeds what polls indicate may not be outlandish. Historical evidence points to other contexts in which polls have mischaracterized candidates’ actual levels of support. For example, polls historically have overstated support for African American candidates who ran against white candidates. The disparity is attributed to social desirability bias, in which poll respondents overreport attitudes and beliefs that are perceived to be desirable. For example, survey respondents who support the white candidate may not wish to be perceived as a racist, and so they tell pollsters (incorrectly) they intend to vote for the African American candidate. Today, discussions around “cancel culture”, political correctness, and the increased salience of race and identity may make Trump supporters fear that expressing their views will lead to social ostracism.
Reflecting these fears, there are, to be sure, anecdotes of individual voters who express these concerns. And in the 2016 election cycle several individual polls supported this thesis, in which support for Trump was higher when the polls were conducted online rather than with a live interview. Yet independent studies conducted by separate researchers and with different methodologies report little evidence that election polls are systematically biased against Trump. Instead, the most likely explanation for Trump’s surprising electoral victory in 2016 is that voters who made their voting decisions very late in the election cycle did so in a way that fell in Trump’s favor. Trump’s success was due less to the underrepresentation of his supporters in the polls and more to his effectiveness in converting late-deciding voters.
Trump’s repeated claim that he has the support of a “silent majority” is not particularly surprising despite the evidence to the contrary. For the last half-century, American politicians have frequently made use of a common tactic when public opinion seems not to support their point of view: argue with the measures! President Richard Nixon first invoked the concept of his “silent majority” in 1969 when arguing that the small number of vocal protestors against the Vietnam War paled in comparison to the majority of Americans who opposed antiwar demonstrations. Presidents Reagan, Clinton, and Obama have also made appeals to Americans whose views, they assert, are infrequently represented but commonly shared.
The claim that a silent majority will rescue Trump’s electoral standing, therefore, is more political theatre than political reality. When the polls don’t favor your campaign, you run against the polls. Trump again is invoking this time-tested strategy, just as he did in 2016. It is an attempt to assert a claim to popular legitimacy despite evidence to the contrary.
The caveat to all of this is, of course, that 2020 is no normal presidential election year. The coronavirus pandemic will fundamentally change how Americans cast their ballots. It may also affect whether Americans cast ballots at all—and whether those ballots are ultimately counted. For all the advances in modern polling, therefore, predicting the 2020 election outcome is more challenging than it has been in decades. But for all the ink spilled about the cultural divides in American politics, there is little evidence that the silent majority stands ready to rescue President Trump from the first defeat of an incumbent president in 28 years.