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Whose voters are 'hidden' in polling data? 'Shy' Biden voters may actually outnumber Trump’s

Andrew Romano
·West Coast Correspondent
·8 min read
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With Donald Trump trailing Joe Biden by about 7 percentage points in the national polls — a margin that has barely budged during one of the most tumultuous political years in memory — some of the president’s supporters have taken to dismissing Biden’s lead as a mirage.

You’ll see, they insist. On Election Day, millions of Americans who intend to vote for Trump but are embarrassed to admit it will emerge from hiding and propel the president to victory.

This argument is known among political analysts as the “shy Trump voter” theory. It’s nothing new. After Trump’s narrow, unexpected Electoral College win in 2016, some observers floated it as an explanation for why state polls in key Rust Belt states underestimated Trump’s support.

But there was no evidence then to substantiate the claim that a decisive number of Trump fans concealed their true feelings until Election Day 2016. Statistical errors, notably undersampling of non-college-educated whites, was the more likely cause of that year’s state-level polling failures. And there’s even less reason to believe that millions of Trump voters are being circumspect today.

In fact, new data from the latest Yahoo News/YouGov poll suggests that shy Biden voters may now be more plentiful than shy Trump voters.

Joe Biden discusses his plans if elected to develop and distribute a safe coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine, during a campaign speech after being briefed by public health experts in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., September 16, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Democratic nominee Joe Biden speaks in Wilmington, Del., on Wednesday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The survey, which was conducted from Sept. 9 to 11, found that the vast majority of Trump voters live in heavily pro-Trump areas where the incentive to shroud their political leanings for fear of censure — a phenomenon known as “social desirability bias” — is probably pretty mild, if it exists at all. A full 65 percent of Trump voters say that all or most of their neighbors will vote for Trump. Just 5 percent of Trump voters say that all or most of their neighbors will vote for Biden. Less than a quarter (22 percent) say they don’t know how their neighbors will vote.

Biden voters, on the other hand, tend to live in more politically diverse areas, with a much smaller number (44 percent) saying that all or most of their neighbors will vote for the Democratic nominee. Fourteen percent say all or most of their neighbors will vote for Trump or that they don’t know how their neighbors will vote (32 percent).

This doesn’t disprove the existence of shy Trump voters. But the reality is that few Trump supporters are surrounded by Democrats with whom they would need to be shy.

On the contrary: It is Biden voters, not Trump voters, who are more likely to be “shy” enough to hide their politics.

Asked if their neighbors would be surprised to learn whom they support, about the same overall share of Biden (14 percent) and Trump (12 percent) voters said yes. But when you zero in on Biden and Trump voters living in “enemy territory,” a clear distinction emerges. Just 20 percent of Trump voters with mostly Biden-backing neighbors say those neighbors would be surprised by their support for Trump. Among Biden voters in Trump country, however, that number is 10 points higher (30 percent). In other words, Biden voters are more inclined than Trump voters to stay silent when surrounded by the other side.

Democrat Tracey Wine, 50, is a mental-health therapist from Weston, W. Va. — a small town in a county that voted for Trump by nearly 60 points in 2016 (in a state that voted for Trump by more than 40).

President Donald Trump speaks to members of the press prior to his departure from the White House on September 15, 2020 in Washington, DC.  (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
President Trump speaks to members of the press on Tuesday. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

“I know Biden’s not going to win West Virginia,” Wine told Yahoo News. “But if I have to crawl on bloody stumps to vote, I will.”

What Wine won’t do, though, is display her support for the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee.

“I have yard signs for a Democrat who’s running for sheriff’s deputy,” Wine explained. “I had yard signs for a Democrat who ran for mayor. I don’t mind putting up a Joe Manchin yard sign, because everyone knows [West Virginia’s moderate Democratic senator] is a DINO [Democrat in name only]. The Republicans leave him be.

“But ... I have a Biden sign, and I won’t put it out,” Wine continued. “Not for any amount of money. No bumper stickers, either. I don’t want to be screwed with. Maybe if you built a garage to protect my car from damage — but then they’d just burn my house down.

“I know Biden supporters are fewer and further between around here, but there are some. And we never see any Biden signs. Just Trump.”

Bob Downs, 80, is a retired naval commander living in Estero, Fla., just south of Fort Myers; his congressional district voted for Trump by more than 20 points in 2016. Downs’s retirement community prohibits yard signs, but he said his fellow seniors would be surprised by his support for Biden for a different reason.

“I go back and forth,” Downs told Yahoo News. “I was for Barack Obama, but that was a tough one. He was running against Mitt Romney and John McCain, and both of them were good men. I wouldn’t have minded either of them. And before that I was for George W. Bush — twice. And I was for Ronald Reagan.”

But Downs has never liked Trump and believes Biden is the “right person to get rid of him” — even if he’d rather not talk about it.

Supporters of US President Donald Trump wait for him to speak during a Campaign Coalitions Event with Florida Sheriffs at Tampa International Airport in Tampa, Florida, July 31, 2020. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)
Supporters of President Trump wait for him to speak in Tampa on July 31. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

“This is a very red area,” he said. “So I don’t get into arguments with Trump people. Sure, I listen to them. Then I go on my way.”

Abigail Fabich, a 32-year-old kindergarten teacher from Medina, Ohio, is more vocal about her politics — she attended the local Black Lives Matter protests and plans to hang a Biden flag on her deck — but she agreed that her pro-Trump neighbors don’t seem particularly shy.

“Their signs and flags are all over the place — especially the one that says ‘Trump 2020: No More Bulls***,’” Fabich said. “It’s kind of crazy. We’re mostly white Christians around here. If I ever said ‘BS’ around my grandma, she would probably pull out the Dial soap.”

Will these dynamics decide the election? Probably not. For one thing, the Yahoo News/YouGov poll is an online survey, meaning that “social desirability bias” is basically a nonissue. Even if a bunch of Trump supporters were worried about being stigmatized, there are no human interviewers from whom they might feel compelled to hide their true feelings. Thirty-nine percent of registered voters now say they will vote for Trump. Forty-nine percent say they will vote for Biden. They are saying this from the privacy of their own computers. Biden’s lead is real.

It’s possible, of course, that Trump could still win the election. Things could change between now and Nov. 3. October is known for its namesake “surprises.” Just as in 2016, undecideds — currently 9 percent of the electorate, according to the Yahoo News/YouGov poll — could break for Trump at the last minute, though the data suggests that Biden could benefit more from the undecided vote than his unpopular opponent.

Amid concerns of the spread of COVID-19, a voter looks over their selection at a polling station, Tuesday, July 14, 2020, in Richardson, Texas. (LM Otero/AP)
A voter looks over her selection at a polling station on July 14 in Richardson, Texas. (LM Otero/AP)

Either way, the fact that Biden voters in pro-Trump areas are about 10 points more likely to be “shy” than Trump voters in pro-Biden areas is a sign that the president isn’t about to be saved by some secret groundswell of support.

The shyest voters of all, in fact, may be the ones who have switched from one party to the other since 2016. And here, at least, Biden has a sizable advantage. Only 1 percent of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 supporters say they will vote for Trump in November, according to the Yahoo News/YouGov poll. At the same time, 8 percent of Trump’s 2016 supporters say they will vote for Biden.

“People are proud; no one wants to admit they were wrong,” says Abigail Fabich, the Ohio kindergarten teacher. “So the only people I really talk to about politics are people I’ve already built a rapport with, like my cousins. One in particular voted for Trump in 2016. She doesn’t make a big deal about it or anything, but she’s really embarrassed that she voted for him — and she will not be voting for him again.”

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