Trump on Polling Deficit: I'm Going to Be Like Brexit

Guy Benson
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Posted: Aug 18, 2016 10:15 AM
Trump on Polling Deficit: I'm Going to Be Like Brexit

As is his wont, Donald Trump established a news cycle narrative with an early morning tweet today, exclaiming that he'll soon be known as "Mr. Brexit." Media figures on social media initially reacted with puzzlement, pulling their chins over what he might have meant. To me, the answer was immediately obvious -- and Trump's point offers an ideal jumping off point for an electoral map analysis that I'll perform later today. First, here's the tweet itself:

He was referring to the "shy voter" effect, a wherein a subset of voters lie to pollsters a about their actual intentions, due to outside social pressures -- e.g., they falsely declare they'll vote the opposite way, or that they're undecided.  Trump's saying that given the media negativity surrounding his candidacy and his dreadfully bad favorability ratings, there may be a small but significant number of US voters who secretly plan to pull the lever for him in November, but don't want to tell anyone of their intentions.  Is this plausible?  Maybe.  First, it's important to note some important differences and relevant caveats.  For instance, although 'Brexit' outperformed its final polling position by about six points, the final average of nationwide surveys showed the referendum within the margin of error, at 48-46.  Furthermore, as you can see from the Financial Times chart below, "leave" built some momentum over the home stretch, and string of polls at the end correctly predicted the outcome:

The Economist's public opinion tracker showed the referendum nip-and-tuck for months, with "leave" often slightly ahead.  These dynamics do not currently translate to the US presidential race.  At the moment, Trump is losing soundly, both nationally and in almost all key swing states; he's down big in a few must-win places like Pennsylvania.  His positive momentum is virtually nonexistent.  When I raised these issues on social media, several Trump fans jumped in with some variation of, "but he overperformed all of the polls in the primary, so we know he'll do so again in the fall."  This mythos may be comforting to some, but it's wrong.  Here's some data that tracks Trump's actual vote-getting vs. statewide polling averages from January to mid-March, the most competitive stretch of the GOP race:

For the record, the five states in which Trump outperformed his polling margin are New Hampshire (2.3%), Nevada (1%), Alabama (4.6%), Arkansas (6.3%), Georgia (0.6%). All were contests were March 1st or earlier. The 15 states in which Trump underperformed his polling margin are Iowa (-8%), South Carolina (-3%), Alaska (-6.9%), Minnesota (-10.2%), Oklahoma (-13%), Tennessee (-3.8%), (-8.1%), Texas (-8.1%), Vermont (-12.7%), Virginia (-11.7%), Kansas (30.9%), Kentucky (-9.3%), Louisiana (-12%), Idaho (-28.3%), Michigan (-0.7%), Mississippi (-13%).

The polls under-measured his showings in a handful of states, but were more often too generous to him.  An argument could be credibly made that based on this experience, Trump is faring worse against Hillary than current polling suggests, but I won't advance that case.  I'll simply say that there is no data-based reason to conclude that the Republican nominee is likely to significantly outperform his polling position.  On the other side of the coin are several points: (1) It's not October yet, and looking across the pond, "remain" generally led "leave" in the Brexit polling for the large majority of that battle -- although "leave" wasn't consistently viewed unfavorably by 60-plus percent of Britons. (2) Therefore, I believe this to be true:

Trump's Brexit parallel doesn't apply to him...yet.  He's dug himself into a pretty deep hole.  The theory he floated this morning will only achieve plausibility if he solidly improves his standing. He doesn't necessarily have to overtake Hillary over the next two months, mind you, but he needs to pull quite a bit closer.  If he does, the "shy voter" concept might work its magic. (3) This is at least a healthier approach to pushing back on the polling than desperately and fancifully "unskewing" the data -- did we learn nothing in 2012? -- or simply denying its existence.  Trump has hit on the least ridiculous explanation for why the polling might all be wrong.  But for this to become more than a therapeutic endeavor, there's a lot of work to do.  Fortunately for Trump, one of the two people he's just hired to help right the ship is a clear-eyed professional (skip ahead to the 7:45 mark):

"You look across the net and you keep lobbing at her. You don't don't pick a fight with the ref, you don't boo the crowd...Focus on her because she is very weak."

Conway recognizes that he's losing and pleasantly offers sound but tough advice: Drop the distractions, keep on message, and fix your sights almost exclusively on Hillary.  Trump should listen to this woman if he has any hope of staging a comeback.  All is not well, by any stretch of the imagination, but all is not lost yet either.