Four years ago, a team of data scientists working for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign became convinced that public polling that showed Trump losing to Hillary Clinton was wrong. Internal campaign data culled from Facebook donors and rally attendees suggested that some people who voted infrequently and didn’t respond to pollsters were going to show up and vote for Trump. The campaign dubbed them “Shy Trumpers.”
That turned out to be prescient. On Election Night, a groundswell of blue-collar voters that other pollsters had missed helped deliver Trump an upset victory and cemented the idea of Shy Trumpers in campaign lore.
Today, Trump is once again trailing his Democratic rival in public polls — and claiming that pollsters are overlooking a “silent” mass of his supporters. “They want to bully us into submission,” Trump said at the Republican convention in August. “If they get their way, it will no longer be the silent majority, it will be the silenced majority.”
But pollsters are skeptical. Many doubt that shy Trump voters still exist and some question whether they ever did. Like the Loch Ness Monster, evidence of the phenomenon is largely anecdotal and hotly disputed, even as its adherents maintain an unshakable faith.
”Obviously they do exist. There are some people out there like that,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Poll. “Do they exist in numbers large enough to affect the outcome? No, they don’t.”
As a group, Shy Trumpers escaped the notice of many political pros. They tended to be white, rural, populist, and without a college degree. Most polls didn’t account for them because they hadn’t been decisive in previous presidential elections.
But the campaign believed they existed in great enough numbers to switch strategy in October and broaden the electoral map, sending Trump into such seemingly reliable Democratic states as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. Clinton, confident of victory, virtually ignored those states.
“In the last weeks before the election, we undertook a big exercise to reweight all of our polling, because we thought that who [pollsters] were sampling from was the wrong idea of who the electorate was going to turn out to be,” Matt Oczkowski, who led the campaign’s 2016 data team, said after the election.
Voters in both parties appear to share the president’s belief that these hidden Trump voters will again factor into the election. A Sept. 10 Monmouth University poll found that 55% of respondents think that there are “secret voters in their community who support Trump” but won’t tell anyone about it.
There are three main reasons why experts in both parties doubt shy Trump voters will factor heavily in November.
First, pollsters say they didn’t take voters’ education level into proper account in 2016. They believe that was a mistake. By including too many college-educated voters, who disproportionately supported Clinton, they produced polls that missed the strength of Trump’s blue-collar support. A post-election autopsy by theAmerican Association for Public Opinion Research confirmed that pollsters failed to predict the winner because they underestimated the number of non-college-educated voters in the Midwestern battleground states that produced Trump’s electoral college victory. But most pollsters now weight their polls by education level, eliminating this 2016 blind spot.
A second reason is that Trump voters are simply no longer shy. “‘Shy’ is generally not a characteristic of a Trump voter,” says John Anazolone, pollster for Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign. Indeed, the AAPOR study found little difference in support for Trump between anonymous online polls and telephone polls conducted by live operators, with whom Trump-leaning respondents were believed to be coy. Either way, today’s Trump supporters tend to be out and proud. Polls regularly show that more than 90% of Republicans support Trump and do so with greater intensity than Democrats support Joe Biden.
This hasn’t stopped some Republican strategists from insisting that shy voters exist and taking steps to reach them. After the GOP convention, the Trump campaign touted the idea in a $2.7 million ad blitz in Arizona, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and Wisconsin. Leaning into their contention that Trump voters face social sanctions from a hostile, liberal “cancel culture,” the ads feature a woman silently sitting on a bed, holding placards that read: “I’m afraid to say this out loud … I won’t risk my children’s future with Biden.”
“That ad speaks directly to the silent majority who are afraid of being attacked or ridiculed,” Bill Stepien, Trump’s campaign manager said, “just because they’re afraid of Joe Biden’s radical agenda.”
But even some Trump strategists concede there’s a third reason why the hidden voters the campaign detected in 2016 probably won’t produce a major, unexpected shift in this year’s election results — they now have a voting record. After Trump voters cast their ballots in 2016, both campaigns can account for them.
As one Republican strategist working on Trump’s re-election effort puts it, they’re now baked into the cake. Another says that while the shy Trump voter isn’t extinct, its population is only a fraction of what it was four years ago. In 2016, Trump got a boost from this group of about 2.8% in Pennsylvania, allowing him to eke out a victory. Today, this strategist estimates that the number is below 2%.
Yet people in both parties continue to believe that unseen Trump voters are lurking everywhere and poised to tilt the election. “They don’t put out the sign and they don’t wear the red hat, but they’re there,” says Brian Walsh, president of America First Action, the main pro-Trump super PAC.
Plenty of Democrats agree. Obsessed by the last election and its unexpected outcome, they don’t put stock in the many polls showing Biden winning. Superstition about shy Trump voters endures, even as it becomes clear that other groups are poised to play a bigger role in this year’s outcome, such as 2016 third party voters, who polls show now support Biden by 2 to 1.
Even hardened skeptics of the Shy Trumper phenomenon concede that nothing is likely to shake the widespread conviction that hidden voters will decide the election. Especially not among anxious Democrats. “There’s a collective PTSD about 2016,” says Anazalone, Biden’s pollster, “and that will not cease until our guy’s hand is on the Bible.”
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