By Prithvi Iyer
“I’m not buying it,” said a stay-at-home mum and committed Republican weeks before the United States of America went to cast their vote. She was referring to not buying the polls that predicted a landslide victory for Joe Biden, claiming that polls are unable to tap into a sizeable chunk of the electorate who hide their true preferences. Her skepticism was reaffirmed with instances like a Quinnipiac pre-election poll wrongfully predicting Joe Biden to win in Florida and Ohio—key states that voted for Donald Trump. Despite a gross mishandling of the pandemic and burgeoning racial tensions under his administration, Donald Trump still fared better than pollsters predicted and even won key swing states like Florida. So, where did the pollsters falter this time? The answer requires looking at inherent flaws in the polling process and innate psychological vulnerabilities of voters.
The success of a poll is a product of how representative the sample is. It is not possible to capture all the diversity of a country in a small sample, so if certain demographics are under-represented, pollsters can weight the data to compensate.
In 2016, pollsters believed that they did not weight for education level and claimed that Trump support among non-college educated white voters was underestimated, leading to erroneous conclusions. In 2020, pollsters thought that weighting for education would solve their problems but that did not happen. Instead, a deeper methodological problem revealed itself. Polls rely on self-report and respondents promptly answering their phone. Unfortunately, polls suffer when potential respondents refuse to respond to polls based on characteristics that polls can’t measure. Unlike race or gender that can be weighted using census data as an accurate reference point, partisanship and support for the evangelical community, for instance, are identity markers that polls find hard to gauge. As noted by Brian Shaffer, a pollster at Tufts University, Trump supporters are inclined to distrust the media and academia and, by extension, are less likely to take polls seriously. Thus, if these groups just don’t respond to polls, arriving at a representative sample that reflects Donald Trump’s base is difficult.
Moreover, the nature of self-reporting also presents inherent challenges that stem from certain psychological vulnerabilities of the voter, especially a need for social approval that compels voters to lie or avoid polls due to perceived social cost for supporting Donald Trump.
The shy voter
Apart from citing sampling errors, many pollsters have attributed their inability to explain Trump’s win in 2016 because of the “shy voter phenomenon”—a tendency for people to lie to pollsters about their voting choice. Underpinning this need to hide support for Trump is a “social desirability bias”. This bias compels people to answer polls in ways that ensures they are viewed in a positive light. Thus, when asked to share their voting preferences to a stranger on the phone, people are more likely to give an answer they think the pollster wants to hear, rather than their true opinion. With political polarisation growing more vitriolic and intolerance on both ends of the political spectrum getting more extreme, voters are more hesitant to share their true beliefs with the world.
This dangerous pattern of “‘people getting beat up for wearing the wrong hat” has widened partisan divides and made voters scared to publicly disclose their vote choice. This makes the shy voter phenomenon a huge hurdle for polls in mapping the support base for a polarising figure like Trump. Research on voting beliefs in 2020 showed that 77% of conservatives feared sharing their political opinion because of perceived backlash, an increase from the 70% who felt so in 2017. Neil Newhouse—a Republican pollster previously affiliated with the Romney campaign—also showed how Trump tended to have higher favourability ratings when respondents were asked to press a button to record their preference rather than talk to a live person. Moreover, in post-election polling, he also found 35% Trump supporters unwilling to publicly declare their support for him.
With polls relying on self-reporting, the innate human need to be looked upon favourably and the perception that supporting Donald Trump would undermine a voter’s social capital presents a systemic issue with how polls gauge support for populist leaders. One way to work around this, presented by pollsters, is to ask voters who they think other people will vote for, reducing the fear of being judged for one’s own political views. Thus, a possible alternate question is “who do you think your neigbours will vote for” instead of “who would you vote for?” One polling agency found that when voter choice questions were framed in third person, a 10-point Biden lead was cut in half, indicating the importance of reframing questions to eliminate social desirability bias to better capture voter preferences for leaders like Trump.
Such solutions that acknowledge the impact of social pressures compelling respondents to be inauthentic is needed for polls to regain their efficacy. Hyperpolarisation has made political views subject to public shame from both sides of the aisle, making it difficult for self-report measures to discern which responses are genuine and which are not. Innovation in sampling and question framing strategies shall be required in addressing these challenges and reinstating faith in the polling process.
The unwavering allure of Trump: A Freudian perspective
The 2020 election and Trump’s better-than-anticipated performance reveals the allure of Donald Trump is still alive and Joe Biden’s victory must not lead us to forget that. Trump has still captivated the imagination of a large demographic in the United States as indicated by an Edison Exit poll showing Trump to have increased his vote shares in 2020 among all race and gender categories, except white men. One way to understand Trump’s allure that evades polling consensus is to look at Sigmund Freud’s concept of the Id—a part of the mind that holds our primal impulses that we actively try to repress.
A Freudian understanding of Trump’s allure tells us that his success lies in expressing to voters what other candidates can’t fathom—the dark, divisive and morally reprehensible aspects of political rhetoric, otherwise discussed in hushed circles and giving it unprecedented legitimacy. What Trump’s critics construe as thoughtlessness may be the source of his power as the impression of an uncontrollable man who “says it as it is” could well be the manifestation of a collective American Id that for so long was never allowed to be freely expressed under the garb of American exceptionalism.
If one values this Freudian perspective as a meta-discourse to understand the allure of a populist leader like Donald Trump, it seems clear that the urge to see the Id being manifested in politics will not die with Trump leaving the White House. It may be something Donald Trump’s rhetoric triggered but the effects shall be felt long after he is gone. Until the time we grasp the allure of Trumpism from a psychological perspective, leaders co-opting this model of leveraging the electorates’ primal urges shall continue to hold sway and Trumpism may just outlive Trump himself.