Less than a week out from Election Day, after Biden has led Trump consistently all year in nationwide and state-by-state polls, Democrats and Republicans who should know better are still trying to tell us the race is much closer than it looks. Among other things, they’re still clinging to the myth of the shy Trump voter: the idea that polls necessarily underestimate the real support for the President, because a certain percentage of Trump voters in every sample will lie out of embarrassment.
This is not happening. In all likelihood it didn’t happen in 2016 either. For one thing, the final national polls were quite close to the actual results, and in the states where polls were off, it was because most of the undecided voters broke for Trump at the last minute. And in those states, the final margins were so close that no amount of polling could have given us any certainty ahead of time anyway. But beyond that — as Trump never tired of telling us, either before or after he won — his rally crowds were always massive, and always much bigger than Clinton’s. The typical Trump voter in 2016 was extremely excited to vote for Trump, and extremely eager to show it.
Even if shy Trump voters did explain a small part of Trump’s surprise victory in 2016, those voters are not shy any longer. Who would be shy about voting for a winner? If you go to a Super Bowl party and you’re the only person rooting for the underdog, you might not talk much during the game. But when your team pulls the upset, you’re jumping all over your friend’s couch while everyone else stays quiet.
Not only that, but some evidence suggests that Trump voters tend to be grouped together in communities where almost everyone is a Trump voter, whereas Biden voters tend to live in communities with a diversity of opinions. Trump voters have no reason to be shy, because they fit in with their neighbors. Much more so than for Biden voters, when you’re a Trump voter, the chances are that your opinions make your neighbors like you better.
Though there’s not a lot of direct evidence for it in current polling, the anecdotal evidence suggests that there may be one group of shy voters in 2020 — but they’re not Trump voters. They’re women voting for Biden, who are married to Trump voters. If anything, it would be a fairly small percentage of those women. But it’s easy to imagine that there are plenty of households in across the country where the husbands are very proud Trump supporters, and also very accustomed to getting their way. And given the huge swing among women voters from Trump to Biden over the past four years, it’s also easy to imagine that some of those women voters are in households where they know from long experience that life is always better when their husbands can be made to believe that they’re going to get their way.
We can assume that there are virtually no shy voters among people who are not changing sides from 2016 to 2020. If you’re voting for the same side in 2020 that you voted for in 2016, it’s because you like that side and you think it’s still the best choice available. The number of voters who would lie to a pollster under these circumstances is probably vanishingly small — far too small to show up in a survey result.
Among single people in 2020, we can also expect that shy voters would be fairly rare. If you live alone, you have no reason to lie to a pollster, because no one else hears you on the phone. Maybe a few people might care enough about their roommates’ opinions to lie in a poll, but it’s much more likely that roommates on opposite sides would actually go out of their way to argue about the election.
That leaves married couples where one or both people are changing their votes from 2016. If they’re both changing, they support each other and neither one will be shy about it. (Unless they’re changing in opposite directions, but this might be the rarest group in the whole country. Raise your hand if you know a couple where one person is switching from Trump to Biden, and the other is switching from Clinton to Trump.) If there are any shy voters in 2020, they’ll be members of a couple who are splitting their votes this year, but did not split their votes in 2016. The person whose mind has changed is by far the most likely voter to be shy about his or her 2020 pick, because the switch is creating a tension within the relationship that wasn’t there before.
If there are shy voters among gay or lesbian couples, they’re too rare to make a difference in the polls, because gay and lesbian couples are less than 5% of the population, and only a tiny fraction of them would include a shy voter.
So there are four ways that a heterosexual couple who have been together since the 2016 election could end up splitting their votes this year, when they voted together in 2016. The man could change from Trump to Biden, while the woman is sticking with Trump. The man could change from Clinton to Trump, while the woman is sticking with the Democrats. The woman could change from Trump to Biden, while the man is sticking with Trump. Or the woman could change from Clinton to Trump, while the man is sticking with the Democrats. Sexism being what it is in America, it’s highly unlikely that a man in a heterosexual relationship is going to be shy about changing his mind, to the point where he’d lie to a stranger in order to keep the truth from his partner. And there just aren’t very many couples where the woman is switching to Trump and the man is sticking with the Democrats, given that men voted by a large margin for Trump in 2016 and women are switching in large numbers to Biden this year.
That leaves one group: the couples who voted together for Trump in 2016, where the woman is planning to vote for Biden this year. Chances are that there’s also a negligible number of shy voters in this group. We won’t know until we see the exit polls next week. But if there are any shy voters in appreciable numbers anywhere in the country, they’ll be mostly women who are changing their vote to Biden. So if the polls are off this year because of shy voters, that means we’re going to see a bigger Biden victory than we think.