William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Stream: Are Polls Underestimating Trump’s True Support?


Today’s post is at the Stream: Are Polls Underestimating Trump’s True Support?

The press in 1980 did their best to scupper Ronald Reagan. They said he was an “extremist” and that he would “would divide America along racial, religious, and regional lines”. They said Reagan was a “dangerous cowboy” with his finger on the nuclear button. They seethed, raged, insinuated.

The Republican establishment joined in the calumnies. The strain on party brotherhood was so bad that after the primaries, one-time Republican candidate John Anderson split from the party and ran as a NeverReagan.

It was thus unfashionable to admit liking Reagan, and so not a few kept their mouths shut.

Presidential polls might have reflected this Reagan shyness. In the month before the election, polls had Carter up an average 44% to Reagan’s 40%. Anderson hovered around 9%, which left about 7% of voters unaccounted for. Were some of these 7% shy Reagan voters?

The final averages right before the election gave Reagan the edge, 47% to Carter’s 44% and Anderson’s 8%. That left only 1% unaccounted for.

The final tallies gave Reagan 51% of the popular vote, Carter 41%, and Anderson 7%, with the remaining 1% spread over novelty candidates.

There is a huge discrepancy here. Polls showed Reagan with 4% less support than he actually had, and Carter with 3% more and Anderson 1% more. These errors could have been caused by Reagan supporters unwilling to tell pollsters their true preference, but they also could have been because of built-in biases of the polls themselves. These biases should not surprise given that many polls are conducted or commissioned by mainstream media outlets, whose sins and biases do not need recounting.

At this writing most polls show Hillary nearly tied with Trump, yet there is a suspicion that, like in 1980, some voters are shy about admitting liking Trump. If this is so, the polls exaggerate Hillary’s true support.

Is anybody who is for Trump coy? If so, how many secret supporters are there? Or are the polls biased?…

Go there to read the rest. And speculate below on how much you think the polls will shift after tonight’s debate.


  1. Possibly. Yet, must remain cautious about conclusions. This is a most dangerous game. We all have our personal reasons for voting for candidates. In my case, I can never get past Clinton’s lying and general prevarication. It is worse than Nixon in multiple ways. When I worked in and around the Pentagon decades ago, had I engaged in only a small fraction of her activities, I would have been prosecuted and convicted under multiple US statutes. To elect her will certify to all that a criminal can be elected and avoid prosecution based on who he or she is. This would be, in my strong opinion, the end of the Republic: application of laws based on who your are and not blind justice was the bedrock upon which this nation was originally built. Those who support Clinton may conveniently sweep this under the rug, but, in the end, will be placing themselves under the same servile authority and subjugation that resulted in atrocities throughout history. This is no minor point–I beg you all to think beyond your ideology.

  2. It will come down to who wins the battle between the stealth-deplorables and Democrat shenaningans. With a possibly tied SCOTUS, it could be months before we find who prevails with a TKO.

  3. Reagan was the successful governor of a large state. Reagan was ideologically scary but Trump is scary because of so many other things. His bombast, his insults and sarcasm, his taunting…in short his New York in your face attitude. Plus no experience in government.

    I think there a lot more shy Trump supporters than there were shy Reagan supporters.

  4. Polls are unreliable period. Reagan won every state except Mondale’s home state. If the final tallies gave Reagan 51% of the popular vote it was way off.

    The problem may be as stated that people lie when asked though. A recent town hall with Hillary got 1000 attendees while Trump rallies regularly are SRO. However, both have strong negatives. Hillary only seems competent at lying but then the impression is all candidates lie in all elections. Trump is an eccentric flipflopping wildcard This election is like having to choose between the eclectic chair and hanging.

    Maybe the best measure is here where people put real money down on their opinions ($50M to date): https://electionbettingodds.com/week.html

    But U.S. citizens are excluded and these odds have been quite wrong before (Brexit, e.g.).

  5. Yawrate: bombast, insults, sarcasm, taunting and “New York in your face attitude” ARE NOT CRIMES! You can certainly be offended by and turned off by them. That is your right and privilege.

    But, placing code-word-laced, national security information in emails on an unsecured, private server for the purposes of obfuscation IS a crime, and lying about this fact plus intentionally lying to Congress, the FBI and the American people is also a crime and is treasonous!

    Game. Set. Match.

  6. Totally OT: This blog has been hard to read with medium gray on white normal text with block quotes and links even lighter. Maybe because of my developing cataracts and the high glare. I just added a contrast setting option to Chrome. I inverted the colors here with remarkable improvement.

    This is a test

    It’s plain that rain does not fall mainly in Spain

    This comment can be deleted.

  7. Polls measure popular vote, mostly … what really counts is how the electoral college will split.

    There’s a couple of key factors in assessing poll results:

    1) Margins of error, on poll numbers, address two possibilities … but the vast majority only see one: In a very tight race, say one candidate is ahead by about one percent, but the margin of error is reported at about three percent – the vast majority view this as an effective tie because the measure difference is well within the margin of error. That view is correct, but incomplete. The margin of error can also indicate a very sizable spread between the candidates (in this example one in which either may have a sizable lead), per the way the pollsters tell us they actually calculate those numbers — but the press likes a tight interpretation because that creates news.

    2) How a poll is conducted can make a very big difference; respondents if asked directly are much less likely to admit supporting a controversial candidate (Trump fits this description, more so via press sensationalism than reality), but much more willing to admit support anonymously (most reported polls are not anonymous):

    From the NYT, May 11, 2016 (what follows is a quote from that issue of the NYT):

    Many voters are reluctant to admit to a live interviewer that they back a candidate who has adopted such divisive positions.

    In matchups between Trump and Hillary Clinton, Trump does much better in polls conducted online, in which respondents click their answers on a computer screen, rather than in person-to-person landline and cellphone surveys. … Why is this important? Because an online survey, whatever other flaws it might have, resembles an anonymous voting booth far more than what you tell a pollster does. …

    In a May 2015 report, Pew Research … determined that the biggest differences in answers elicited via these two survey modes were on questions in which social desirability bias — that is, “the desire of respondents to avoid embarrassment and project a favorable image to others” — played a role.

    In a detailed analysis of phone versus online polling in Republican primaries, Kyle A. Dropp, the executive director of polling and data science at Morning Consult, writes: “Trump’s advantage in online polls compared with live telephone polling is eight or nine percentage points among likely voters.”

    A similar pattern of behavior was observed with those supporting Tony Blair (per Wikipedia): en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shy_Tory_Factor

  8. La Longue Carabine

    September 26, 2016 at 10:43 am

    Wow! Donny Osmond in drag votes for…?

  9. Ye Olde Statistician

    September 26, 2016 at 10:49 am

    The other thing to remember is the difference between accuracy and precision. You may have a poll with a very tight “margin of error” around a very wrong value. I’ve seen this happen with measurements of inanimate objects when, for example, an instrument was poorly calibrated or was used improperly.

    I recollect an election in which three candidates were prominent: “I wanna hold your hand,” “Dead man walking,” and “Alfred E. Newman.” Let’s call them BC, BD, and HRP. The Wall Street Journal helpfully published the last polls conducted the day before the election, and the CBS/NYTimes poll showed BC with a wide margin over BD, something like 18%-points iirc. The other polls, like WSJ/NBC predicted similar, though less wide margins for BC. The intriguing thing was that these margins had been consistent throughout the polling season: that is, there had been no secular trend in the margins. Yet, some of the polls fell outside the margins of errors for other polls. This was due to the way the questions were asked.

    Then the election was held, and BC won by only about 8%-points, a margin that might have been overcome had the BD people not fapp thrown in the towel early. Only one poll, Zogby, had called the correct margin consistently during the campaigning, largely because they figured “undecided” at that late date were unlikely to vote at all. (The other pollsters were using “forced choice” methods and “who are you leaning toward?” to allocate the undecideds.)

  10. As an avid call screener, I’ve often wondered…who are these people who actually talk to phone pollsters?

  11. Here’s a comment that doesn’t reflect my personal bias. We live in a semi-rural northeast Pennsylvania area (small town–50k, surrounded exurbs and farms), where there are two large industries. Yard signs are an indicator here of how a candidate is doing. There are many more yard signs for Trump than there have been for presidential candidates in the past. I haven’t seen one for HRC or third party candidates. The signs are posted in all economic types of neighborhoods–McDonald mansion developments, farm houses, trailer parks. My wife and I attend off-shoot Conservative party get-togethers and the story from Republican committee people (again in semi-rural areas–the Pennsylvania T, described as Alabama between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh by James Carville) is a huge demand for Trump signs. This is anecdotal, non-quantitative, but there it is, and it will be, I think, a better predictor than polls (which gives me the freedom to vote my conscience).

  12. 5 out of 4 dead people vote democrat.

  13. ¯\_(?)_/¯:

    Now that’s funny. I don’t care who you are.

  14. @ Bob Kurland,
    I live in a very blue northeast state to which HRC has come on frequent fundraising trips over the years. I too have seen only TRUMP signs. Last two times around the Obama signs were everywhere. Even the Bernie signs from primary time have not disappeared nor been joined by H signs. Very curious.

  15. @John Z.

    “I can never get past Clinton’s lying and general prevarication.”

    Can you honestly say that you believe Trump is more honest?

    Every other president in recent history has placed any personal financial / business interests into a blind trust.

    Trump plans to turn his over to his kids.

  16. MattS:

    Please read what I wrote: it is your privilege and right to disagree with me, Trump or anyone. It is your right and privilege to be offended by him; even assert that he is lying (or has lied).


    He never compromised national security information using ANY means; was never a public official responsible to we, the public; and, he never lied before Congress or to a Federal agency.

    I take it, based on the responses I have read, that no one here has ever held or currently holds a security clearance.

    Respectfully, those who have not held a security clearance are free to have and express their opinions. However, I submit that you are not qualified to have an authoritative position on the matter unless you have had (or currently hold) one. Her activities in this regard are absolutely criminal — demonstrably so, and acknowledged even by the FBI (although they have been compromised, as well). The fact is that NO ONE in the general population could have done what she did and emerged without being prosecuted (& convicted). National security secrets are held for a reason, particularly at the levels discussed in her e-mails. There are many good reasons for this, including the possible loss of life. The fact that a person who has committed criminal violations of established statutes can get away with them unscathed should be alarming to ALL OF US – regardless of political party. The implications are sobering for us as a Republic. If Donald Trump had done the same thing, I would be equality offended and concerned.

    As I wrote, I beg that you look beyond ideology.

  17. Still a lot of time left in the game, but this is interesting – and it’s voting data, not polling data.

    “Trump Leads Early Voting in Florida By 120,000 – A First For Republicans in The State”


  18. @John Z.

    “It is your right and privilege to be offended by him; even assert that he is lying (or has lied).


    He never compromised national security information using ANY means; ”

    Mostly because Trump has never had access to national security information. Your argument on this point amounts to saying “My apple is shiner than your orange”.

  19. A few years ago I was telling a young man about how Kennedy won Chicago, and he said, “I didn’t know that he he campaigned in cemeteries.”

  20. As I’ve said, I’ll believe the polls when we get closer, maybe a week out. Right now, there is just no price to be paid for being wrong.

    I believe that polls are used for yet another purpose. When candidate A says or does something that interest group X despises, interest group X commissions a poll showing that candidate A’s numbers took a big hit immediately thereafter. In other words, polls are used to attempt to control the candidates. It seems to me this has happened multiple times in this election, and it just doesn’t pass the smell test. Everybody I know who plans to vote is pretty much set in concrete on their preferred candidate.

    DAV – I suspect you didn’t mean to be intentional hurtful, but my mother got the eclectic chair.


  21. Milton.

    Sorry. I blame the spell checker.

    If that’s your mother’s chair in the link then, yes, choosing between H and T is a lot like choosing between that chair or hanging. 🙂

    That chair might go well with a lava lamp.

  22. MattS:

    That is a straw man argument. To suppose that someone has not done something because he or she has never had the opportunity to do something is a false argument, and to use that as a method to discredit the remainder of what I wrote is false. This has nothing to do with shinier or less shiny, and your argument is a distraction from the main point I made, which you did not address.

    My point stands: you can have your opinion, but you did not refute my argument.

  23. You might like this satire…

    “Latest Polls Agree: Clinton Ahead of Trump by 97%” http://thepeoplescube.com/peoples-blog/latest-polls-agree-clinton-ahead-of-trump-97-t18584.html

  24. John Z.:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insight. It’s always so refreshing to come across someone effective at logical dialogue. I wish more people could put emotions aside when arguing.

    I couldn’t agree more with the points you made. I have no first-hand NatSec experience and have never held a security clearance but based on the “research” I’ve done, anyone who understands our laws related to NatSec and clearances agrees with your points and is equally astonished and outraged by the utter failure of our government to hold HRC accountable for her misdeeds. History won’t look kindly on our refusal to hold her accountable for her purposeful deceit, circumvention of the rules and law, and her repeated lies.

    What saddens me the most is that half of our country (the Democrats) simply ignored it all and even used it as fuel to attack the Republican politicians who were doing their best to protect American citizens by holding the former Sec of State accountable. The Democrats’ inability to acknowledge HRC’s faults and mistakes and demand better from her makes me wonder why they are incapable (or simply unwilling) to see her as the imperfect person she is. I will be voting for Trump, but I would never pretend to believe he is perfect. And I would gladly acknowledge all his faults. If Trump did something like Hillary did, I would be just as disgusted.

    Why were the Democrats so set on Hillary that they couldn’t pick a better candidate? Why didn’t any Democrat step up to legitimately challenge Hillary? Do the Clintons seriously have so much control over the American Left and/or DNC that nobody — nobody legitimate — felt comfortable running against her? My gut and skepticism won’t let me believe that O’Malley was a legitimate candidate. He was likely only there to give the primary an appearance of fairness (seriously, he was chair of HRC’s 2008 campaign in Maryland and endorsed her). Sanders was never legitimate in the sense that he is a socialist and never seriously challenged HRC. Just compare the DNC primaries with the RNC primaries. Why wasn’t HRC challenged and attacked by fellow Democrats like Trump was attacked by fellow Republicans?

    With regard to the polling, the reason Trump is so popular in America today is because people are sick and tired of the PC culture that is regularly used by liberals as a weapon to silence opponents with shame, guilt, embarrassment, etc. It’s sad how much disdain and hate liberals have for anyone who holds an opposing viewpoint. Questions can no longer be asked. Discussion is no longer permitted. Blind worship and obedience is demanded. The liberal PC culture has been incredibly effective at preventing most Republican politicians from expressing the views and beliefs held by half of America — for fear of being labeled a racist, bigot, sexist, Islamophobe, Homophobe, etc. Simply put, a great majority of America has been afraid to exercise free political speech — one of our most sacred Constitutional rights.

    In the midst of this PC, out of the shadows came Trump. He unapologetically spoke his mind from day one. Unafraid of the potential ramifications for refusing to abide by the PC rules, Trump showed America that he was confident in his beliefs, that he loved our country, and that he was willing to do anything necessary to protect our interests and keep us safe.

    The MSM has clearly done everything in its power to paint Trump as the embodiment of evil. From the president to news anchors and newspaper editors to our own liberal friends, we hear rhetoric that attempts to paint Trump as something so despicable and vile that only an equally despicable and vile person could support him. Hence, most Trump supporters remain silent. For every Trump supporter we see, there are dozens of others who remain silent, waiting for their day in November.

    I suspect there will be many people who will vote for Trump despite having spent the past year acting as if they despised him.

    One last thing I’ll say to conclude by rant is that Trump actually provides America with a great opportunity to regain the strength and power of our system of checks and balances. With so many Republicans unhappy with Trump and fearful of what he may do as president, Congress will finally have the ability to keep the president in line, override his vetoes, and even impeach him if need be. For the past 8 years, Democrat congressmen have embarrassed themselves and our country by giving Obama a free pass to do whatever he wanted. They disregarded their duty to the citizens in favor of their desire to please their savior. Republicans won’t treat Trump like such a god. Republicans will keep him in line and won’t hesitate to work with Democrats to ensure that Trump doesn’t do anything crazy. This seems like a good compromise to me.

    Thank you.

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