In presidential campaigns over the past decade, there’s been a distinct pattern. It starts like this: Polls are released showing a candidate is down. Then the candidate denies the results are accurate and says he has different numbers (but doesn’t share them). Later, more polls are released reaffirming the previous results. Finally, the candidate refutes polls broadly (“the only poll that matters is on Election Day”) or goes after the methodology (“they aren’t talking to the right voters”).
With Donald Trump down in the polls, this pattern has reappeared. This cycle, Trump supporters are trying to find new ways to show that the polls are “skewed” and that his support is, in fact, higher than it appears. In Trump manager Kellyanne Conway’s recent interview with the UK’s Channel 4, she states that “undercover” Trump voters will help win the presidency for the Republican.
These alleged “voters” exist because, according to Conway, Trump “performs consistently better in online polling where a human being is not talking to another human being about what he or she may do in the election.” This is because it’s “socially desirable” for a college-educated person to say that they’re against Trump.
Conway’s statement that these “undercover” voters exist and will help Trump win in November is laughable.
The idea that Trump has been performing better in online polls compared to live-calling polls has been brought up before. We already debunked this in June, and showed that, in fact, there’s only a 0.4 difference between legitimate online polls and live-calling polls. But Republicans continue to refer to a Pew report from 2015, which found that, broadly, respondents wanted to portray themselves in a more positive light when they were speaking with a live interviewer compared to completing an online survey.
While this technically fits in with Conway’s narrative, the report noted no partisan bias: Democrats and Republicans were more negative in their responses. Truly, there’s no evidence that there are “hidden” Trump voters who are ashamed to tell a live interviewer that they are voting for Trump.
Trump voters have also been particularly active throughout this campaign, and haven’t hesitated from making their opinions known. While Trump has been struggling with college-educated voters, this is because they view him as “unqualified” and “temperamentally unsuited to the presidency,” a fact that has been demonstrated again and again throughout this campaign.
Both the numbers and the research show that Conway’s statements make no sense. While there might be some difference between how people respond with online polls and live-calling polls, there’s absolutely no indication that these people are “undercover” supporters.
As we discussed in a previous piece, the idea that there’s some hidden group of Trump voters not showing up in polls is not borne out. Even with a pollster running his campaign, it’s going to be hard to bridge the divide between reality in the numbers and the talking points that portray the campaign’s chance of winning in the best light possible.
It doesn’t help that there are crocked surveys, like the fake PPP poll, circulating that show Trump winning key battleground states in a landslide. Conservatives keep bringing that up to show how skewed the polls are. That also harks back to previous cycles.
Four years ago, there were infamous skewed polls showing President Obama was cruising to reelection. Backers of Mitt Romney even went as far as to create a website called unskedpolls.com, which showed what the results should be if the pollsters were using the “correct” universe. Shockingly the polls painted the right picture and Obama comfortably defeated the Republican.
It’s never a good sign when you’re referring to voters who aren’t showing up because they’re ashamed to vote. While polls can fail, and many polls were wrong in the primary election, polling has been generally on the mark in presidential general elections.
There’s no credible reason to believe that the polls are off this year. Shaking up the campaign leadership isn’t going to change what voters fundamentally find problematic with Trump.
Stefan Hankin is founder and president of Lincoln Park Strategies, a Washington D.C.-based public opinion firm. Follow him on Twitter at @LPStrategies.