We often hear that “every vote counts” in a presidential election. But the fact is, some votes count a lot more than others.
That’s because the vast majority of the electorate consistently votes for one party or the other. Voter turnout is important and can vary in important ways. But the affiliation of most voters is largely set in stone.
Even those that claim to be “independent” aren’t really independent; they may not be party “diehards,” but they consistently lean one way or the other.
Strategists in the two parties know this. They are concerned about making sure that their traditional base is mobilized and will show up to vote. And that traditional leaners, many of them just as loyal, will keep leaning their way.
So how many voters are actually “in play” – that is, open to fresh persuasion? Very few, according to polling experts; in fact, probably no more than 8-9% of the total electorate.
These “persuadables” generally make up their mind late in the game — in the last few days of the election, maybe even on election day.
And these voters often don’t always tell pollsters how they’re really thinking, either.
We saw this phenomenon on full display in 2016 when Donald Trump, seemingly out of nowhere, captured a number of Rust Belt states that had gone for the Democrats under Barack Obama, and indeed for many years prior.
Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan all went for Trump by the slimmest of margins, largely at the last minute, when a relatively small number of “persuadables” decided to cast their vote for him.
Pollsters generally missed this trend. In many of their polls, many of these swing voters were hidden in the “undecided” column – often 5% or more.
But some of these voters also lied to pollsters. Some were Democrats who were planning to vote for Trump for some time, but they didn’t want to admit it. Some even told pollsters they were planning to vote for Clinton.
This phenomenon is quite old, in fact. It tends to show up in elections where the candidates are highly controversial and some voters feel pressured to maintain a public posture of party loyalty when they really want to switch.
And once in the ballot box, where no one is watching, that’s exactly what they do.
In the UK, analysts refer to this syndrome as the “shy” Tory. A Tory is a conservative voter. But there are traditional supporters of the Labor party that may quietly vote for candidates of the Conservative party.
As with Democrats that quietly support Trump, these Labor party supporters may still vote Labor in many elections, but on the question of national leadership, they’re willing to “swing” to the opposite party
But they’re reluctant to tell pollsters this, especially if friends or members of their family are listening in
The Trump campaign was well aware of this phenomenon. They called it the Trump “undercount.” Many Democrats thought it was an empty boast.
But independent polling analysts confirmed it. For example, in mid-2016, an in-depth Washington Post analysis warned that Trump’s vote share might be 6-8% higher than it appeared in polls at the time, enough to give him the margin of victory in November.
These were America’s “shy” Tories. They were angry enough to take a chance on Trump but kept their intentions quiet.
It could well happen again.
Presently, many voters tell pollsters that they find things Trump says – or some of his behavior – objectionable. Those sentiments typically appear in so-called “favorability” polls, which measure a candidate’s image or personality, not his performance.
In favorability polls, Trump typically enjoys a 45% average percent rating. That’s led many pollsters to conclude that there is significant disaffection from the president.
But the pattern was the same in 2016. Back then, no more than 45% of the electorate said it liked Trump or viewed him “favorably.”
It didn’t matter. In the balloting, swing voters embraced Trump anyway.
Some recent polls don’t focus on favorability but on the actual issues facing the country. These polls seem to offer far more insight into the way swing voters are actually thinking, and how they are likely to vote next November.
For example, a poll conducted last August asked respondents to assess which party they preferred for the presidency in 2020 based on their policy stances, not their candidates.
Not surprisingly, voters overwhelmingly favored the Trump/GOP positions on the economy, immigration, foreign policy and other issues. It wasn’t even close.
Democrats are desperate to make the 2020 election about Trump – his personality, his “morality” and his “fitness” for office. Because if the election is focused on the issues, they know that they will lose.
The fact is, many critical swing voters don’t like Trump any more than they did in 2016; they may like him even less, in fact.
But they’re still going to vote for him.
Even if they might tell mainstream pollsters otherwise.