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Are ‘shy Trump supporters’ skewing polls again?

In 2016, a hidden Trump voting bloc made his support look smaller than it was. That, along with pollsters’ underestimation of his support among white non-college voters, could make polls unreliable again.

Mike McCarn/AP
A campaign worker hands out signs before President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, March 2, 2020.

Dear reader:

Polls are catnip for political reporters, and I am no exception. This year, however, I’ve been paying less attention to the presidential “horse race" than I might otherwise, in part because of the problems with polling four years ago that pointed to a Hillary Clinton victory. It’s also such an unusual year, given the coronavirus, tough economy, and upheaval over police and race. Besides, November is still light years away, politically speaking.

But several headlines this week caught my eye. “We’re thinking landslide,” began one in Politico. The “we” in that story, more than 50 Republican officials interviewed from around the country, were looking beyond the immediate gloomy picture for President Donald Trump, and seeing unreliable polls, a rebounding economy, and a fading pandemic.

“We’re calling him ‘Teflon Trump,’” said a Republican official in North Carolina. “Nothing’s going to stick, because if anything, it’s getting more exciting than it was in 2016.”

The Washington Examiner buttressed the Politico story with a recent comment by veteran GOP pollster Neil Newhouse.

“I’m still convinced there is a shy Trump supporter, a hidden Trump vote,” Mr. Newhouse said, referring to voters unwilling to tell someone on the phone that they plan to vote for President Trump. “I’m convinced that number is at least 2 to 3 points.”

“Shy Trump supporters” may have contributed to the flawed polling of 2016. National polls had shown Mrs. Clinton winning the popular vote by 3 percentage points; she won by 2 points. But election-eve polls in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan failed to see Trump victories in those states, and that was the ballgame. He won in the Electoral College.

The Trump campaign has picked up on the “shy voter” theme, leading to another grabby Politico headline: “Trump has a point about the polls.”

The point is that pollsters, most importantly in battleground states, are still grappling with some of the same issues they faced in 2016 - not just shy voters, but also possibly inadequate consideration of non-college-educated white voters.

“Some of the fundamental, structural challenges that came to a head in 2016 are still in place in 2020,” Courtney Kennedy, director of research at the Pew Research Center and the lead author of a report on 2016 polling flaws, told Politico.

This warning matters to both campaigns and voters. If pollsters don’t fix the problems, both must behave as if the polling might be off. In other words, when it comes to polls, caveat emptor - buyer beware.

Now a programming note: Earlier today, our Supreme Court reporter, Henry Gass, took questions on Mr. Trump and presidential power over on Reddit. Check out the conversation. And let us know if there’s another politics topic you’d like to see us cover in that format.

We can be reached at csmpolitics@csmonitor.com.

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